Imagine if you were baking a birthday cake and you had the benefit of having the Vermont Senate Finance Committee helping you.
That’s what it’s like as we debate how to extend broadband throughout Vermont. The birthday we want to celebrate is coming soon and we have to make decisions about what kind of cake we want, who will bake it and how it will be delivered. None of us on the committee have ever baked a cake before and several have never even used an oven. What could go wrong?
During the past several weeks, the Senate Finance Committee has been ruminating over how best to use the millions of dollars of federal funds available for broadband. Everyone knows that expanding broadband is one of the most critical tasks facing Vermont. Connectivity is essential to enable people to work remotely, to help kids with remote education and to enable telemedicine. Without effective broadband, we risk creating two Vermonts: one that is in the 21st Century and one, mostly rural, that increasingly is falling behind. Broadband is an essential component of the state’s economic future.
But as we craft the broadband cake, the committee continues to talk. First, we debate what kind of cake is needed. Will it be white cake (not diverse enough), will it be gluten-free (the flour lobby opposes that), buttery (health care advocates object to the cholesterol) or devil’s food (heaven forbid!). Then the question is who will bake it? Should we rule out buying any cake from large out-of-state commercial bakeries? Should individual slices of the cake be baked in municipal kitchens to capture the flavors of each region of the state? What happens if one of the local kitchens creates an inedible product or, worse, burns down its own kitchen? Or, should we use a statewide recipe to ensure there is a common flavor? Do we need a State Pastry Chef?
As legislative committees always do, we take testimony. First we hear from the weight-loss advocates, who caution against too much sugar. Next come the cake pan makers, who advocate fiercely for and against aluminum pans. We ignore the question of what the cake will cost and whether anyone can afford to buy it. And nobody will agree on the icing on the cake. Then the local Cake Union Districts, who have never baked a single cake, tell us to mind our own business and stay out of the kitchen.
But if we are going to have any cake at all, we have to start baking. If we dither, a historic opportunity will pass us by. There is only a limited window in which the federal cake-payer will be around. We can’t take the usual legislative course of creating a study committee to produce a report telling us how to dither even more. To get any kind of cake baked, we have to recognize that ingredients are in short supply and have to be ordered months in advance. Where do we get flavorings, mixers, ovens, bakers and delivery persons? And we have to decide who will be in charge of keeping track of all of this.
Senate Finance needs to make key decisions quickly:
• Recognize that the Public Service Department (PSD) is under-resourced and hopelessly conflicted by its role both as an advocate and as a regulator. Continuing to do what we are doing isn’t working.
• Create an entity – the revamped Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) — with a competent leader in charge, positioned to drive modern telecommunications policy and execution.
• Make the Authority’s charge broad enough to cover all modern telecommunications, not just broadband connectivity and not just community efforts. Less than 20% of Vermont’s broadband will be delivered by Communications Union Districts (CUD).
• Charge the VTA with creating guardrails - review, oversight, standards — designed to identify and prevent failure.
• Aggressively begin planning, engineering and designing CUD broadband for under and unserved areas. Use the PSD for this purpose during the transition period until the VTA is up and running. Charge the Joint Information Technology Oversight Committee (JITOC) with providing oversight and advancing thought while VTA is under development. We may not get this perfect now, but we will regret it if we do nothing as we fumble around.
• Recognize that we need interim solutions to the extent they are available. Telling Vermont workers, children and patients that they must wait five or more years for fiber to their homes is unacceptable if interim solutions, even though imperfect, are available. The Broadband Now initiative should be supported.
• Involve all of Vermont’s internet providers in the solution. Despite their potential and our hope for their success, do not place all of the millions in federal funding solely in the hands of unproven CUDs that serve a small percentage of Vermonters. CUDs, led by enthusiastic community volunteers, are a valuable component in Vermont’s broadband future, but they are not the only entities that are essential. We must ensure that receipt of state money requires acceptance of state standards, such as net neutrality and open access. No agreement = no state money.
• Reaffirm the statewide broadband goals including universal availability of truly high speed broadband and mobile wireless communication, competitive choice, the best available commercial technology and future-proof design.
The Senate Finance Committee is in the oven. The temperature is rising. We have to get cooking.
Randy Brock represents the Franklin District in the Vermont Senate. He is the Senate Minority Leader and is a member of the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Information Technology Oversight Committee.