Legislators Push 'Reset' On Broadband Goals

Apr 22, 2014

A bill moving through the Legislature sets ambitious new broadband goals for Vermont. 

If the goals are met, it would mean high speed fiber optic service for every Vermont location  within the next 10 years. But it's not clear how that goal will be reached, or how the improvements will be paid for.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Tim Ashe of Chittenden County says the goal is an aspiration not a promise.

Until now the state has set incremental targets for broadband coverage – beginning with the goal of simply providing some kind of service to every Vermont address.

A bill approved last week by the Senate Finance Committee would push the reset button on Vermont’s telecommunications goals.

In the short term the state would concentrate on bringing service to all Vermonters at speeds that meet the federal definition of broadband (4 mbps download/1 mbps upload).  Currently 25 percent of addresses don’t have service at those speeds.

But the committee also made it clear that any improvements should be made with an eye toward the ultimate goal of universal coverage at far faster fiber optic speeds of 100 mbps download and upload by the year 2024.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Tim Ashe of Chittenden County says the goal is an aspiration not a promise. Ashe says he expects there will be some federal dollars available but Vermont has little money to entice broadband providers to build infrastructure.

“Most of the build out that will occur in the coming years is going to be paid for by the private sector.  The real role of the state is regulation and coordination,” he says.

There is little the state can do to regulate broadband, unlike land line telephone service. But for the first time the committee’s bill attempts to introduce a measure of regulation.

The legislation would require telecom companies that apply to the Public Service Board for a Certificate of Public Good to show that their plans are consistent with the state’s Telecommunications Plan.

Ashe says he was surprised when he learned that requirement wasn’t already in place.

“We’re attempting to make some sense of that by requiring that the Public Service Board to make sure that CPG applications conform with our telecommunications plan. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing the plan?” says Ashe.

The state Telecommunications Plan is currently being updated so it’s not yet clear what goals it will include.  

Two major cable companies that provide broadband service are seeking to renew their Certificates of Public Good. Charter Cable has begun the process and Comcast will begin within the next year.

Department of Public Service Telecommunications Director Jim Porter says the state doesn’t have the authority to dictate the speed, cost and availability of broadband services that the private sector provides.

“Generally speaking we have jurisdiction over cable television and telecommunications service, we generally do not have jurisdiction over the Internet or broadband access.”says Porter.

So even if the state includes telecom goals in the Certificate of Public Good process, Porter says it has little enforcement power in the area of broadband.

Another issue the Finance Committee discussed was how to maximize resources and minimize duplication by requiring companies that use the public right of way to make infrastructure like fiber optic lines available to everyone.

Currently there is nothing to compel a company to share infrastructure with competitors. The bill calls for state policies that "encourage the development" of open access infrastructure.

Porter, who is responsible for revising the state telecommunications plan, says he supports the goal of universal fiber optic speeds outlined in the committee’s bill.

“I think it is a goal that we should have. I also think it’s a goal that will be expensive to attain,” he says.

The Senate Finance Committee bill will provide some additional money for broadband.

It increases and expands the Universal Service Fund surcharge that is levied on telecommunications services.

That’s expected to raise an estimated $1.45 million annually for a newly created Connectivity Fund that would be used for broadband.

The bill also creates a Division for Connectivity within the administration which would take the place of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority. 

Supporters of the VTA argued that the expertise and relationships the organization has developed would serve the state well in the future.

Ashe says the budget required to maintain the VTA isn’t justified.

The bill also calls for universal mobile telecommunication coverage along roadways, and "near universal availability statewide."