Governor signs bill to expand broadband coverage across state

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Governor signs bill to expand broadband coverage across state

Thu, 06/20/2019 - 8:46pm -- tim

Vermont Business Magazine At a public ceremony Thursday in Dover, Governor Phil Scott signed H513, An act relating to broadband deployment throughout Vermont, which invests in expanding broadband connectivity throughout the state.  

“While we know it’s not a cure-all to economic challenges, we can all agree reliable broadband is important for economic growth, education, public safety and overall access to information, services and people around the world,” said Governor Scott. “I want to thank the House Energy & Technology and the Senate Finance Committees for their work on this legislation, as well as my team at the Department of Public Service and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. It was a bill with genuine consensus in Montpelier, which is far too rare.”

Governor Scott signed the bill at Dover Town Hall and was accompanied by Public Service Commissioner June Tierney, Representative Laura Sibilia (I-West Dover), Representative Tim Briglin (D-Thetford), Representative John Gannon (D-Wilmington), Representative David Durfee (D-Shaftsbury), Representative Kelly Pajala (I-Londonderry), Senator Becca Balint (D-Windham), Karen Horn of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and additional members of the Legislature and the Scott Administration.

The legislation increases funding to the Connectivity Initiative to provide internet service in unserved or underserved regions of the state and creates a new Broadband Expansion Loan Program within the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) to provide implementation capital to start-up broadband providers to develop community-based solutions.

“One of the many things we can celebrate about H.513 is that it is a law that doesn’t just contemplate or authorize better connectivity in Vermont. Rather, it is a law that will do things – things that are important for our state,” said Commissioner Tierney. “More Vermonters will get broadband because of this bill. Vermont communities will have new financing tools and a coach to help with their projects.  H.513 makes those resources available and so much more.”

H.531 raises the Universal Service Fund fee from 2.0 percent to 2.4 percent (and requires retailers to collect and remit the fee in connection with selling prepaid calling plans). The resulting $1.2-1.4 million in additional annual revenue would largely go to the Connectivity Initiative, which provides grants for the deployment of broadband infrastructure. 

The bill also appropriates almost $1 million from the General Fund for studies concerning the feasibility of contemplated new intermunicipal Communications Union Districts similar to ECFiber (comprised of small towns in Orange and Windsor counties), for Connectivity Initiative Grants, and for studying the idea of electric utilities providing broadband connectivity.

Another significant feature of the bill, and one that came from the administration, is the creation of a loan program managed by the Vermont Economic Development Agency (VEDA) to provide loans of up to $4 million to both existing and start up internet service providers. 

Finally, H.513 establishes a PEG Access Study Committee charged with considering changes to the State’s cable franchising authority and developing alternative regulatory and funding mechanisms to support public, educational, and government (PEG) access channels.                         

In total, the state invested an additional $1.5 million to initiatives, which includes:

  • Support for rural broadband solutions through a new Broadband Innovation Grant Program;
  • Creation of a new Broadband Expansion Loan Program to provide alternative broadband providers with capital that recognizes start-ups in this field;
  • Investment in the Connectivity Initiative to provide access to Internet service in unserved or underserved locations;
  • Support for municipalities with technical assistance grants through the ThinkVT Innovation Program; and
  • Creation of a new Broadband Technical Assistance Specialist to provide outreach and support to rural communities with broadband projects.

The bill passed the House March 26 on a vote of 139-2.

Energy and Technology Committee Chair, Representative Briglin, said at the time: “Access to high-speed broadband service is a fundamental requirement for growing our rural economy. If we are serious about creating a Vermont that works for everyone, we must empower communities with the tools they need to solve deficiencies in broadband connectivity.”

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said, “This bill invests approximately $1.5 million in Fiscal year 2020 into three areas of need: the Broadband Innovation Grant Program, Connectivity Initiative grants, and increased funding for the Department of Public Service. These investments are targeted at the 17,000 Vermont households that lack access to even the most basic internet service. If we are marketing Vermont as a place you can work remotely, Vermonters must have reliable internet access. Vermonters across the state, especially in rural communities, benefit when they can tap into the commerce, educational opportunities, and resources available on the web.”

In also supporting this effort, Greg Marchildon, AARP Vermont State Director, said: "AARP is pleased to see H.513 signed into law and congratulates lawmakers for making broadband expansion into rural Vermont a top priority.  Broadband is the electricity of the 21st century. Communities, families and businesses that lack broadband service are falling behind and this legislation gives towns and cities the tools to plan for and deploy fast and reliable broadband service. For older Vermonters, broadband is essential for reducing social isolation and improving access to civic engagement, telehealth and their communities. Being able to send emails and engage in social media allows older Vermonters to stay connected to family and friends, access online newspapers and magazines and be a part of the digital world we all live in today. AARP Vermont was a vigorous advocate for this bill and continues to focus efforts to connect older Vermonters with the outside world.”

Source: Governor 6.20.2019