Legislation that will help bridge the digital divide, which last session gained strong bipartisan support in Harrisburg, has been reintroduced this session by one of the state’s leading rural broadband advocates, Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York).
The bill, SB 341, would modernize regulations adopted decades ago for rural phone carriers, the RLECs, in an age when they monopolized voice service. Today, the RLECs are still required to comply with the same outdated regulations even though, thanks to competition in the telecommunications industry, they now have less than 10 percent of that service. The money to comply with the now unneeded regulations would be better spent expanding access to high-speed broadband for rural residents and businesses.
The Senate approved legislation with the same language at the end of last session with a strong 33-16 bipartisan vote.
At the same time, key consumer safeguards are left intact under SB 341: 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.
“This initiative is long overdue,” Senator Hill said in a co-sponsorship memo to colleagues, “and is a fundamental component of our efforts to facilitate the deployment of broadband services in rural parts of the Commonwealth.”
She continued: “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. 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.
Steve Samara is President of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association