Legislation that supports rural broadband by modernizing the telco regulatory structure moves out of the committee

With a bipartisan 7-3 vote, the Senate Communications & Technology Committee on April 20 moved legislation that would help bridge the gap in broadband deployment and 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).

“These regulations were set in place when the landlines companies had a monopoly over voice service,” Phillips-Hill, who chairs the committee, said during the committee meeting. “Now they have less than 10 percent of the market.”

The money now spent to comply with the outdated regulations would be better spent expanding access to high-speed broadband for rural residents and businesses, Hill said.

She 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. Many other states have adapted to an increasingly competitive telecommunications climate by streamlining their regulatory structures, and many have credited updated federal regulations as one of the reasons why broadband service has remained robust under the surge in use during the coronavirus pandemic.

“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 a sponsorship memo. “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.

The legislation moves on to the full Senate.