A Forced March Through a Dense Thicket of Legalese

It had to be done and done quickly, and they did it.

The Senate Finance Committee, after hours of lengthy discussions packed into three tedious days, finally moved the big broadband bill Wednesday afternoon. I watched about half of the hearings, and boy, I do not envy the committee at all. It was a seemingly never-ending slog.

The House-passed bill, H.360, got the usual hack-and-whack treatment from Senate Finance; the committee passed a “strike all” version, which meant it killed pretty much the entire bill and substituted its own language. But the two H.360s are not all that different in the grand scheme of things. The differences are mostly in the details, which are ridiculously abundant. There’s no doubt that the House and Senate will reach agreement on a broadband bill. Everyone is determined to get it done this session.

Why was it such a slog? Where do I begin?

Creating this legislation involves urgency, precision and flexibility. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make universal high-speed broadband a reality, thanks to federal Covid relief funds. The Legislature has to get this right. It has to create a bureaucratic framework — in both versions of H.360, a Community Broadband Fund to hold the money and a Vermont Community Broadband Board to disburse it. The bill has to include standards and guidelines to ensure that the Board spends the money in the best way possible. The definition of “best” is both a matter of efficiency and speed, and also policy: Which entities qualify for grants and loans?

Not to mention that broadband is a cutting-edge technology that’s constantly changing. The framework has to be flexible enough to keep up with the times, but sturdy enough to achieve the state’s policy goals. And the Legislature is dead set on getting construction started this summer or fall, which is warp speed for setting up a new bureaucracy.

Which explains why the Senate Finance version of H.360 is a meaty, single-spaced 32 pages long. Yeesh.

The two bills agree on the fundamentals. Vermont’s broadband buildout will rely on Communications Union Districts, in which multiple communities join together to build and maintain universal high-speed broadband service. Both bills define broadband as 100 Mbps download, 100 Mbps upload. (The current standard is 25/3, which isn’t enough in these days of working from home, distance learning, home schooling, streaming TV and the like.) The bill estimates that achieving universal service will cost a cool $1 billion.

The House bill made CUDs the sole eligible recipients. The Senate Finance version saves a seat for small communications firms like Waitsfield and Champlain Valley Telecom to get in on the game, but it shuts the door on the Big Boys like Comcast and Consolidated Communications, because they have proven incapable of last-mile buildout.

The differences are on details like the composition of the Community Broadband Board and what funding source the state will provide over and above the federal money. The House bill included a $150 appropriation of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds; Senate Finance made it an even $100 million. The exact amount doesn’t matter as much as you’d think, because everyone is expecting another big chunk of federal aid from President Biden’s infrastructure plan. Either amount can be categorized as “a good start.”

Oh, and the Senate Finance version sets a sunset date of July 1, 2029 for the Board and the Fund. Which means that the committee believes the work will be done well before that date.

The bill is on Thursday’s Senate calendar, which doesn’t necessarily mean there will be an immediate vote. But H.360 is teed up for Senate passage and the appointment of a House-Senate conference committee to find common ground. Those committees can get a mite testy, since each chamber is heavily invested in its own version. But they almost always work things out. In this case, there’s no doubt that they will. It’s too big a deal, and too urgent.

Get ready, Vermonters, wherever you are. It looks like high-speed broadband is really, truly coming to your door.

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