Facing Vermont's telecommunications problem, water crisis, hydro and cannabis
Rep. Steven Berry
In my last legislative notebook I addressed the Vermont Affordable Housing problem and H.865 an act relating to promoting workforce housing. The housing issue will remain one of the critical issues confronting our state as we move forward in the next years. If we wish to attract young families to our great state they must have housing available that they can afford. They also will have to be provided with opportunities to use the Internet.
Can you imagine wanting to buy a home in one of the beautiful towns in our district only to be told that they do not have access to telecommunications. What is the incentive for a young entrepreneur to move into an idyllic locality such as Sandgate and then be told that only 2 percent of the town is wired? What about children who receive homework assignments that they need to research on the Internet and can't receive telecommunication services at home? As necessary as it is to have affordable housing it is equally important to have 21st century technology at our fingertips in our homes. Working people cannot afford not to have this service but both Sandgate and Rupert are local examples of Vermont towns that do not receive cell phone service or have broadband capacity. This has to change and change fast.
H.870 an act relating to telecommunications, addresses the 248a process of Act 250 and specifically how the interests of towns and municipalities are considered when an applicant attempts to obtain a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) for siting a new telecommunication facility. A section of H. 870 that I will explain first probably has less to do with the local needs than the later issue that I will also describe that attends itself to the needs of our more rural residents who are currently unserved or underserved. To begin with the technical part-current law requires the Public Service Board (PSB) to give "substantial deference" to the plans and recommendations of municipalities and regional planning commissions, "unless there is good cause to find otherwise." H.870 addresses the two main terms "substantial deference" and "good cause" in a manner that will be cognizant of the desires of the towns while offering predictability for the applicant. The definitions in the bill proposed by the Department of Public Service are considered to be more favorable to towns than the definitions currently being applied by the Board. The proposed amendments generally do two things: First, for proposed new support structures (towers) of a certain height, the applicant must identify all existing telecom facilities within a 3-mile radius of the proposed site and do a "coverage" and "capacity" analysis/comparison to see if the new structure can co-locate with an existing structure. Second, the applicant is required to demonstrate four elements in order to obtain a finding that a proposed facility cannot reasonably be collocated. In short, the applicant would need to show: (1) co-location would result in a significant reduction in coverage and capacity; (2) co-location would exceed the structural or spatial capacity of the existing facility; (3) the owner of the existing facility will not provide space on commercially reasonable terms; or (4) co-location would cause radio frequency interference with the service.
The part of the telecommunications bill that I find most helpful to our area is the portion of H.870 expands the projects that may be funded under the Connectivity Initiative to include cellular service, not just broadband projects and it adds additional priorities for funding, such as proposals that upgrade service at underserved public schools. It appropriates $750,000 from the bond premium in the FY17 Capital Budget and a one half percent increase in the Universal Service Fund for the next five years dedicated to the Connectivity Initiative whose charge is to now work toward "universal availability of mobile telecommunications service throughout the State" in addition to the existing goal of broadband speed of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speed.
Finally, H.870 requires the USF fund a news and information service for the blind and visually impaired costing $24,000/year, it makes a company ineligible for funding under the High-Cost Program if it has not provided adequate deployment information as requested by the Director for Telecommunications and Connectivity and it calls for the Secretary of Education and the Director for Telecommunications and Connectivity to design a school connectivity grant program and draft a bill which would provide competitive grants to public schools to upgrade their educational IT applications and equipment. In short, this should benefit our local schools in Manchester, Arlington and Sunderland. House Ways & Means reviewed the Telecom bill that would raise the Universal Service Fund Fee from 2 percent to 2.5 percent and raises $1.6 million a year for the next five years to pay for broadband projects for those who are still unserved or underserved by Internet Service. The Universal Service Fund Fee is only on the telephone portion of a phone bill. So, for example, on a $89.00 mobile phone bill this would be an additional 22 cents a month or $2.64 a year, which seems a small price to pay to follow through on the promise of getting service to folks in Sandgate or Rupert. There may be a bit of controversy because it is, of course, raising some money, but our neighbors and their children need the service. Also, if we want to attract more entrepreneurs and younger folks to Vermont we need to provide telecommunication services where they currently do not exist.
North Bennington Water Crisis
When I ran for office in 2014 I did so on a platform of keeping our environment, our citizens and our businesses and workers healthy. Little did I know that right in our back yard there would be a discovery of a toxin PFOA in the wells and water supplies in North Bennington. I realized before hand that we cannot take for granted our water, food and air quality but the crisis in North Bennington has alerted us to the possible vulnerability of our potable water supplies. The response to these elevated concentrations of this chemical by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation has been prompt, thorough and reassuring. While PFOA in our waters has been the singular focus of this response, the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resource Committee is taking a broader review regarding toxins, toxicants and chemicals of high concern. For years now states have been urging our federal government to revise the Toxic Substance Control Act (TOSCA). The FWWR committee is now taking testimony regarding PFOA and the state response, and on aspects of the two bills presently in Congress regarding federal preemption. House bill H.595 an act relating to potable water supplies from surface water is being amended by our Senate to include a provision to establish a working group that will offer recommendations on preventing exposure to toxic chemicals and how to identify the risks of exposure. It would be worthwhile, when considering lawn-care this spring, to ask what chemicals are being placed on your lawns and on the golf courses. Are the chemicals harmful and what exposure levels are safe for you and your family members and pets. Are the toxins in the chemical fertilizers leaching into your well? What sprays are used to kill the growth along the road by your home? Citizens need to know and inquiries need to be made.
Dams on the Connecticut/Deerfield Rivers
TransCanada recently announced that the hydroelectric facilities on the Connecticut and Deerfield Rivers are for sale. The dams under consideration have a plate capacity of 560 Megawatts, compared to Vermont's daily demand of about 1000 MW. There are innumerable aspects of purchase that would need to be considered if Vermont were to move forward with an attempt to acquire those assets. The Governor has appointed a very well qualified 7 person working group to start that process. Some of the most significant considerations include the physical condition of all the facilities and the cost of repairs/maintenance, FERC relicensing and the conditions/costs associated with that process, renewable energy credits, multi-state ownership by a public entity, impacts on water quality and aquatic biota and fish, and all the risks/benefits associated with a predictable renewable energy future. Think what this asset could mean by mid-century and beyond for clean renewable energy for Vermont given the approaching water crisis and Climate Change.
The Judiciary Committee passed out a strike-all of S. 241 an act relating to regulation of marijuana with input from Government Operations, Human Services and Transportation. This bill will come to the floor for debate. I think that most legislators recognize that Vermont must address public health and safety issues from cannabis use that currently confront the state. So far, the Judiciary strike-all stops short of legalization, but allows the state to prepare for the eventuality that legal cannabis use will come to our region, while also addressing some concerns. Most of the people I have heard from in our district strongly disliked the original Senate bill and this strike-all whether they are pro-legalization or against it. I'm still listening and reading and studying and I will decide how to vote on S.241 after I've heard all the debate and review the House Ways and Means alternative proposal more thoroughly.
Steven Berry is a state representative from the district that includes Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.
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