In a boost for rural broadband, Senate approves legislation eliminating costly, outdated regulations

With a strong majority vote, the Senate approved legislation that would help bridge the gap in broadband deployment and internet speeds between urban and rural areas.

The bill, SB 341, introduced by one of the state’s leading rural broadband advocates, Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York), would modernize regulations adopted decades ago for rural phone carriers (the RLECs). The Senate sent it to the House with a 28-19 vote.

“This legislation will streamline and modernize regulations covering incumbent rural carriers,” Phillips-Hill said on the Senate floor. “The regulations are costly and unnecessary, and eliminating them will help bridge the digital divide.”

Phillips-Hill also noted that the bill does not fully deregulate the industry. Key consumer safeguards remain in place: 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.

“We worked with stakeholders to improve consumer protections, including the use of mediation in customer disputes,” Phillips-Hill said. “If mediation doesn’t work, the customer still has the right to file a complaint with the PUC.”

In a sponsorship memo for the bill, Phillips-Hill noted that the pandemic has made the internet even more necessary for daily life.

“Over the last few months, many Pennsylvanians have had to turn to the internet to work from home, educate their children, seek medical care or apply for assistance and/or waivers from the state and federal government,” Hill said in the memo circulated to Senate colleagues before the bill was introduced in March. “We have heard from many individuals about the challenges this has posed, and they have asked for the digital divide to be closed sooner rather than later as high-speed internet is needed now during the COVID-19 pandemic more than ever in our history.”

The legislation is doubly warranted in a time when we’ve seen money directed to yet-to-be-proven technologies and providers, and to some hurry-up broadband efforts, which may overbuild existing networks. The RLECs have decades of experience in voice and broadband service, and will put the investment dollars unlocked by SB 341 to the most efficient use.