Rural broadband investment is a must
The size of the investment necessary to bridge the urban/rural divide in Pennsylvania is in the billions of dollars, telecommunications experts and government officials tell us.
The trouble is that some of those potential investment dollars are currently locked up into costs that landline telcos incur complying with outdated state regulations.
Regulatory reform legislation, SB 1112, recently introduced in the state Senate by long-time broadband champion Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York), would reduce costs for the landline telcos, without sacrificing long-held consumer protections.
The regulations, administered by Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission (PUC), were set down in an era when the landline phone carriers monopolized service — only voice then and none of it wireless.
That landscape is unrecognizable today.
In what has become a highly competitive industry, landline telcos now provide less than 12 percent of total voice subscriptions in the state.
The regulations targeted for elimination under Senator Phillips-Hill’s legislation are no longer needed to ensure the PUC’s regulatory requirement of “adequate, efficient, safe and reasonable” voice service.
The compliance costs are especially burdensome to my member companies, the rural telcos, or RLECs, who built and continue to maintain the traditional landline networks on which broadband services ride.
These networks provide voice and internet to customers in some of the most remote areas of the state, the areas where it’s costliest to provide service.
The cost of regulatory compliance diverts investment from the infrastructure needed not only to maintain the networks but to keep pace with advancing technologies as well.
At the same time, key consumer safeguards are left intact under SB 1112: the PUC will maintain oversight over universal service, slamming and cramming of customers’ bills, telecommunications relay service for deaf, hard of hearing and speech disabled individuals, and, perhaps most important of all, the requirement that RLECs maintain access to service for all in their coverage areas.
They will continue to be the carriers of last resort.
Many other states have adapted to an increasingly competitive telecommunications climate by streamlining their regulatory structures, and recently the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, credited updated federal regulations as one of the reasons why broadband service has remained robust under the surge in use during the coronavirus pandemic.
Senator Phillips-Hill’s legislation is another prospective step in a government/industry partnership that got Pennsylvania out of the blocks early with broadband deployment. Back in 2004, the General Assembly approved legislation, Act 183, that required full broadband deployment in exchange for some regulatory modernization.
Now it’s time for state government and the RLECs, working together, to take the next step.
Steven J. Samara is the president of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association.