PTA President cautions against squandering federal broadband dollars

One of the biggest concerns of the rural telephone industry over the upcoming disbursement of millions in federal broadband dollars is the prospect of squandering the money on unnecessary or unsustainable projects, President of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association (PTA), Steve Samara, told the Board of Directors of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

“Don’t repeat the mistakes of previous federal broadband programs,” Samara said at a recent public hearing sponsored by the Center. “Don’t overbuild existing networks. Ensure that the revenue is used to fund networks where there is truly a need. And make sure those deploying the networks have the expertise to deliver what they promise.”

Pennsylvania’s share of federal broadband money could reach $1.2 billion, and is expected to begin flowing to the states in late 2023. The funds will be disbursed to unserved and underserved areas by the newly created Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority.

“The authority has already been extremely active in hiring an executive director, beginning to develop a state broadband plan, and holding a series of meetings and webinars with interested parties,” Samara said. “The PTA and its members have committed to offer support and expertise as the authority continues its vital work. The act that created the Authority provides for subcommittees to offer this expertise, and I hope that interested parties take advantage of that provision.”

Under a 2004 law (Act 183),the RLECS were required to deploy broadband throughout their service territories in exchange for some regulatory relief. All PTA member companies met their deployment deadlines.

“While the gold standard for broadband speed at that time was 1.544 Mbps, the law paved the way for not only reaching that objective, but also facilitating the construction of networks which allowed for that speed being eclipsed in broad swaths of Pennsylvania by the PTA member companies,” Samara said. “A thorough analysis of what the RLECs did in adherence to Act 183 can be found in the June 2020 Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report on the matter. That report was required under Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill’s Senate Resolution 48.”

While the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has taken some initial steps to modernize the Public Utility Code, the telco regulatory environment still remains an unfair and unnecessary burden on the RLECs; they must adhere to many state regulations adopted decades ago when they had monopolies over their service territories. Those days are gone. The RLECs now have less than 10 percent of voice service in Pennsylvania. No other broadband providers are required to comply with these regulations.

SB 341, sponsored Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York), would eliminate outdated, costly regulations on the industry. Her bill passed the Senate a year ago and awaits action in the House Consumer Affairs Committee. Another measure, HB 1658, introduced by state Rep. Doyle Heffley (R-Carbon), would provide for potential cost sharing between the RLECs and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation when infrastructure must be moved for road and bridge projects. That legislation unanimously passed the House last September and is currently before the Senate Transportation Committee for its consideration. These bills would allow rural carriers to invest more in deploying new networks and maintaining existing ones.

“The PTA member companies are continuing to build, utilizing state and  federal money, or their own, and are establishing partnerships with interested parties to most efficiently utilize limited resources to deliver the biggest bang for the buck,” Samara said.