The future of landline telecommunications in Pennsylvania: A rural perspective

Newton’s Telecom Dictionary, considered by many to be one of the best sources of information to help navigate through the myriad of terms and abbreviations used in the telecommunications world, recently published its 28th edition. The book is almost 1400 pages long, includes more than 27,000 telecom definitions, (including 827 new definitions and 2500 updates or rewrites from the 27th edition) and, as the author would probably tell you, is outdated soon after it’s printed. Suffice it to say, technology is moving faster than most of us can keep pace with.

In addition to keeping up technologically, rural telcos (known as RLECs, rural local exchange carriers), are facing significant regulatory and legislative developments at both the state and federal level which have made serving their customers even more challenging.

With all of the aforementioned technological, regulatory and legislative changes in the telecommunications world, penning a column addressing the future of Pennsylvania’s RLECs may be pure folly. But here goes.

What many rural residents may be surprised to hear is that their RLEC, in addition to traditional dial-tone service, is offering cutting-edge broadband services and, most likely, all of the technologically advanced services offered by much larger, and more recognizable providers; including wireless and video services, to name a few. The distinction is that they are doing it in rural Pennsylvania which, to put it mildly, is not an easy undertaking. The challenges which face your RLEC are driven by miles between customers, topography and other factors.

Over the next 5-10 years, that type of investment in building and maintaining the rural network can continue for RLECs, but only under the right set of circumstances.

Federal and state regulators recognized that it is much costlier to serve rural areas decades ago and, in an effort to ensure that consumers living in rural Pennsylvania could receive affordable service, established support mechanisms such as the Universal Service Fund (USF). Today, the USF is changing dramatically and may not be around much longer to help rural consumers in the same way that it traditionally has. Without the USF, costs for service in rural Pennsylvania could be much higher than they are today, and potentially unaffordable for some.

Looking forward, the question of whether our RLECs are capable of continuing their role as technology trailblazers and offer cutting-edge services to rural residents in the face of dramatic regulatory and technological changes can be answered with a resounding yes. Even our state’s smallest RLECs are technically savvy and have demonstrated as much with the networks they’ve put in place to date and continue to maintain.

The forecast for whether our RLECs can continue to offer services which are affordable to rural residents is much less clear due to the aforementioned regulatory changes.

Stay tuned.

Steve Samara is President of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association, Harrisburg