State senators want to mothball Vermont Telecommunications Authority

by Hilary Niles Key members of the state Senate want to raise the bar for broadband Internet speeds in Vermont, and they’re looking to change the administration’s lineup to make it happen.

A proposal in the Senate Finance Committee would fold the quasi-public Vermont Telecommunications Authority into the Agency of Administration.

As a counterpoint to the Senate Finance Committee’s broadband discussion, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, reads from a 1905 article from Richmond arguing that electricity is not a necessity, but a luxury. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

The committee is also pushing for minimum Internet access speeds of 100 Mbps to every address by 2024. The current minimum standard is 0.768 Mbps for downloads and 0.2 Mbps for upload speed.

The buildout would be funded in part by increasing Universal Service Fund charges for all phone service and applying a new charge to prepaid cell phones. The fund was established in 1934 to provide affordable telephone service even in remote areas. The national program was founded on “the principle that all Americans should have access to communications services,” according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The Vermont Telecommunications Authority was established by the Douglas administration in 2007 to provide high-speed, universal broadband access. The Legislature began work on developing a forward-looking telecommunications plan for the state in 1992.

Though the overarching goal of universal access has largely been achieved, speeds are inadequate in many parts of the state and the government’s plans have fallen behind schedule.

Now the Senate Finance Committee is reassessing the state’s entire telecommunications system, including legislative mandates for the VTA, the Department of Public Service, the Public Service Board, the Department of Public Safety and E-911.

The legislative scrutiny comes on the heels of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s “every last mile” announcement in December. The governor held a press conference at the end of 2013 to celebrate universal access to broadband to all but 3,000 homes.

Though most of Vermont now has broadband, speeds in many place are slow.

“The Legislature asked that everyone have at least crappy coverage,” Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said Monday in a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee, which he chairs. “That has been achieved.”

Ashe and Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, each have proposed different strategies for what to do next. The two senators have aligned overlapping amendments. The next draft of the legislation is due Tuesday or Wednesday, but discussion so far hinges on setting targets for Internet speeds of at least 100 Mbps.

The current iteration of the proposal would fold the VTA into the Agency of Administration, replacing it with a “director of connectivity.” The director would be charged with ensuring that telecom providers deliver high-speed service to every residence and business address registered with the E-911 emergency response system.

Lawmakers are looking to the expanded Universal Service Fund to help pay for the buildout. The state’s USF share would increase from 1.8 percent to 2 percent, as currently proposed.

A Connectivity Fund, established with money from higher USF charges, would be directed first to providing service of least 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds to all addresses unserved by basic broadband as of Dec. 31, 2013.

Jim Porter, telecommunications director of the Vermont Public Service Department. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Jim Porter, director of telecommunications for the Vermont Department of Public Service, tried on Monday afternoon to put the brakes on the senators’ ambitious plans.

Rapidly changing technology and a federally dominated regulatory structure prevents the state from doing much by way of broadband orchestration, Porter said.

“We should see how that evolves rather than proclaiming the address on top of that mountain shall have X speed by this year,” Porter said.

He said the 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speed is safer for now. Porter says the 100 Mbps speeds Bray is focused on would be aspirational.

Porter is not aware of any state statute that requires the Vermont Public Service Board to compare a telecom companies’ applications against the department’s telecom plans as part of the process of issuing a license to operate in Vermont, also known as a certificate of public good.

Despite these regulatory hurdles, Bray and Ashe appear to be determined to set higher standards for the state’s telecommunications system.

“I think as government, we have an obligation to do long-term planning for infrastructure,” Bray said after the committee hearing. “And there’s no infrastructure more fundamental to our economy, and especially to our rural economy.”