• State might subsidize broadband
     | February 06,2006

    MONTPELIER — A Senate committee this week hopes to approve legislation that will encourage private companies to bring wireless high-speed Internet service to rural Vermont.

    The bill provides more than $1.5 million in low-interest government loans to wireless companies so they can afford to locate in sparsely populated areas that land-based Internet providers like phone and cable companies find economically unviable.

    It also proposes to ease Act 250 regulation so antenna towers can be erected without state permit review, a provision that is sure to set off a protest from the state's environmental community.

    "This is critical to economic development," said Jack Hoffman, spokesman for the Vermont Broadband Council, which supports the bill.

    "It will help get broadband to parts of the state that don't have it."

    The state estimates only 83 percent of Vermonters have access to high-speed Internet, which can be critical for businesses development. Gov. James Douglas has set a goal of expanding access to 90 percent by 2007.

    Environmentalists, however, question the wisdom of exempting antenna towers that protrude as high as 50 feet above the tree line from state permit review.

    All towers above 20 feet now require an Act 250 land-use permit. The Senate bill changes that, eliminating state oversight for all towns with zoning laws that specifically address towers.

    The exemption applies to all telecommunication towers whether or not they include broadband antennas, meaning cell phone only towers also would be exempt.

    Towers planned in towns without local zoning would still require Act 250 review, as would all towers at elevations higher than 2,500 feet.

    "Act 250 reviews different impacts than zoning," said Sandra Levine, a staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental watchdog organization. "This proposal asks an awful lot of towns."

    Administration officials said the exemption is necessary because wireless internet providers tend to be small companies that cannot afford the costly Act 250 process.

    "We are trying to encourage small towers and a process that makes it attractive to invest in rural areas of the state," said Thomas Murray, deputy commissioner for the Vermont Department of Economic Development.

    Members of the Senate Economic, Housing and General Affairs Committee, which is drafting the legislation, said they expect the proposal to be controversial.

    But providing high-speed internet to rural areas is critical to their economic future, and compromises that make the service available must be considered, they said.

    "I want to try and eliminate as many barriers as possible," said Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex/Orleans, the committee's chairman. "This bill will generate that discussion."

    The committee this week hopes to approve the proposal and advance a bill to the full Senate for a vote. The measure to become law also requires House approval.

    Other parts of the bill that are designed to promote broadband development are expected to be less controversial.

    The legislation creates a broadband task force to coordinate infrastructure advancement and identify communities not expected to receive high-speed service without assistance. The bill also makes public money available to wireless companies willing to provide service to these communities.

    The Vermont Economic Development Authority now offers equipment loans to such companies. The bill creates a new, $1.5 million loan program designed to provide operating capital as well.

    "The money would be very useful to new startups," Hoffman said.

    Other bills under consideration by the Legislature this week include:

  • The House Health Care Committee for weeks has been working to develop a less-expensive way for Vermont to treat people suffering from chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension, but this week it hopes to float a proposal designed to offer comprehensive health coverage to the state's 65,000 uninsured. What medical services such a plan will cover, how much will it cost and where the money to pay for it will come from are questions lawmakers have dodged up to now. The committee hopes to finally provide some answers.

  • The Senate will debate a bill designed to make Vermont the first state to ban cropping a dog's ears for cosmetic purposes. The bill makes a first offense a civil fine akin to a traffic ticket. A second offense would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine. The Vermont Veterinary Medical Society supports the proposal, but Republicans are poised to offer an amendment that would exempt veterinarians from the law and make ear cropping illegal only if done by someone other than a licensed vet.

  • The House will debate a bill that requires hospitals to report their infection rates publicly. The legislation creates an advisory board to develop consistent protocols so all medical facilities report consistent information. But lawmakers believe hospitals by 2008 will be able to report infection rates related to at least intravenous lines and a host of surgeries.

    Contact John Zicconi at john.zicconi@rutlandherald.com.
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