Focus on the telecommunications bill

By Rep. Joan Lenes

Topics, issues, and perspectives ebb and flow as needs and information change. In past legislative sessions, I have written about telecommunications, telecom locations, and the degree of input from municipalities. We made some headway in the past with having municipalities be able to participate more fully in the process. As size and scope of projects are driven by current needs, so is applicable legislation. I believe H.870 is addressing these changes.

The telecommunications bill, H.870, 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. 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.

In the bill, “substantial deference” means that the plans and recommendations of the towns and municipalities are presumed to be correct, valid and reasonable. “Good cause” means a showing of evidence that giving “substantial deference” to the plans and recommendations would create a substantial shortcoming detrimental to the public good or to the State’s interests regarding State telecommunications policy and planning. These definitions are considered to be more favorable to towns than the definitions currently being applied by the Board.

Regarding colocation, 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 collocate 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) colocation would result in a significant reduction in coverage and capacity (2) colocation 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) colocation would cause radio frequency interference with the service. Other sections and amendments clarify that, just because a CPG applicant does not need to obtain local approval for a project that does not in any way detract from the substantial deference that is to be accorded local plans and recommendations in a CPG proceeding.

H.870 also 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 Adjustment 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. A bill that focuses on solar siting is S.230 and is currently in House Natural Resources Committee. I know the outcome of S.230 is of interest to Shelburne – stay tuned.

Please stop by Bruegger’s Bagels on Tuesday mornings 7:30-8:30. As always, I can be reached at jlenes@leg.state.vt.us or 802-999-9363. Messages may be left with the Sergeant at Arms 800-322-5616.

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