Phillips-Hill broadband regulation bill clears Senate despite Dem concerns
Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill that she says would expand broadband coverage by overhauling state regulations cleared the upper chamber last week by a mostly party-line vote.
Yet those who oppose the bill say it's a short-sighted response to the COVID-19 pandemic — one that does nothing to guarantee additional investments in broadband or ensure companies benefiting from it are held accountable.
The York Township Republican's legislation, one in a package of broadband-related bills, passed the Senate 33-16 on Wednesday. Phillips-Hill now hopes the House will advance the bill, which, she says, would provide relief to telecommunications companies weighed down by outdated regulations.
"My bill effectively modernizes regulations, allowing the telecommunication companies to compete and invest in broadband," Phillips-Hill said.
The language in the state's Public Utility Code related to broadband regulations was written in 1952, which now subjects telecommunications companies to "monopoly-era regulatory frameworks," according to the senator.
The legislation would essentially waive a variety of regulations in the Public Utility Code, including lengthy reporting requirements meant for a time when landline companies dominated the industry.
Reporting requirements and filing procedures drain companies' resources with administrative costs and other costs associated with meeting the regulations, the Phillips-Hill said.
The bill would also do away with outdated regulations such as oversight of pay phones and service standards based on analog networks.
In addition, the Public Utility Commission would be tasked with reviewing regulations every three years and eliminating "all regulations that are no longer necessary or in the public interest."
Although emphasizing consumers still need protection, Phillips-Hill argued that abiding by the state's existing regulations is costly and does nothing to incentivize telecommunications companies to invest in broadband.
The senator specifically noted the importance of investing in broadband expansion access during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Pennsylvanians have had to utilize the internet more than ever to educate their children, work from home and seek medical care and financial assistance.
But after conversations with the Communication Workers of America, Senate Democrats took a stand against the bill, said caucus spokesperson Brittany Crampsie.
Ed Mooney, a representative for CWA's regional chapter, called the legislation a "slipshod" response to struggles with broadband access that were highlighted by the pandemic.
Instead, he said, lawmakers should have met with the CWA to work out a detailed plan rather than a knee-jerk effort to waive regulations without language that ensures Pennsylvanians would actually benefit.
“When we read the bill, there isn’t once an additional sense that it’s going to be directed to improve the status of broadband availability in the commonwealth,” Mooney said.
Mooney cited legislation passed in the early 1990s that also waived regulations with the expectation that companies would double down in broadband investments and expand access throughout the state.
What happened instead, he said, was that companies took the profits without expanding internet access in rural areas.
The Senate's vote came after a Senate Communications and Technology Committee hearing on Tuesday about broadband expansion, which included input from Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr.
During the hearing, Carr echoed Phillips-Hill's support for waiving outdated regulations, saying that recent efforts led to $29 billion worth of investments by carriers in the U.S. last year.
“It is really hard to imagine that educating children, providing greater access to health care, and improving our economic competitiveness is accomplished without improving access to high-speed internet,” Carr said.
It is unclear if and when Phillips-Hill's legislation could reach the House floor.
But Bill Patton, spokesperson for the House Democratic Caucus, said efforts to expand broadband access are bipartisan and that the caucus would review any legislation that comes its way.
It's too early to tell, though, how the caucus would vote, he said.
Regardless, Republicans hold a majority in both chambers and likely would not need Democratic votes to send the legislation to the governor's desk.
— Logan Hullinger can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.