Broadband expansion project

Officials and project leaders speak Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, at Jim Hite Farms near Chest Springs about the completion of a $1.1 million broadband internet expansion project. Pictured left to right, are Art Martynuska, Cambria County Emergency Management Agency coordinator; Katie Kinka, senior planner for the Cambria County Planning Commission; Brian Subich, field representative for U.S. Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson, R-Centre; Cambria County Commissioner B.J. Smith; Cambria County President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky; Nick Weakland, co-owner of In the Stix Broadband; and Cambria County Commissioner Scott Hunt.

HARRISBURG – A Senate committee has backed two bills intended to help expand access to high-speed internet in underserved parts of the state, but the AARP has expressed concern that one of the measures weakens consumer protections.

Senate Bill 442 would require the Department of General Services to complete an inventory of state-owned property to determine where telecommunications companies might be able to install towers and other infrastructure to improve high-speed internet for nearby homes and residences, said state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, the chairwoman of the Senate Communications and Technology Committee.

The issue has emerged as a daunting challenge, even as lawmakers have spent years acknowledging that federal data on broadband access in Pennsylvania is grossly misleading.

A 2019 study commissioned by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania concluded that every county in the state had at least one area that suffered from inadequate internet speeds.

Senate Bill 341 would roll back regulations on land-line phone companies to try to help those companies reinvest in deploying the infrastructure to make high-speed internet more widely available, Phillips-Hill said.

Phillips-Hill has been one of the lawmakers leading the push in the General Assembly to tackle the issue of broadband access. She is the prime sponsor of both bills, which were approved by the committee by 7-3 votes on Tuesday.

State Sen. John Kane, D-Chester, the Democratic chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee, spoke out against both bills.

He noted that the unions representing communications workers and the AARP have opposed SB 341 and said that the Public Utility Commission has begun work on updating the phone companies’ regulations.

“Let the PUC finish the job they have started,” he said.

Phillips-Hill said that the PUC has been moving too slowly on updating the regulations and that, as the commission has delayed action, the number of people using land-line phones has continued to dwindle – land-line phones now only represent about 9% of the market, she said.

The AARP has opposed the legislation, saying that it would force customers to make complaints to the companies instead of the PUC and “relegating the PUC to a ‘mediator’ role only after the consumer has gone through the provider,” Teresa Osbourne, advocacy manager for the AARP in Pennsylvania, said in a letter spelling out the group’s opposition. “This is simply not acceptable.”

The AARP backed Phillips-Hill’s other bill, though.

“All Pennsylvanians must be able to rely on the availability of affordable and high-quality communications services,” Osbourne said. “Without it, communities suffer as opportunities for local businesses to prosper and for people to learn, find jobs, and stay healthy are lost.”

Phillips-Hill said that, under SB 442, after the state completes its survey of properties, when telecommunications lease space on state property, the revenue would be designated to help fund broadband deployment elsewhere.

As a result, if a state property in a densely populated area attracts a lease deal from a telecommunications company, “that money can be repurposed” to pay for broadband projects in underserved areas, she said.

With the committee’s approval, both measures now go to the full Senate for consideration.

John Finnerty is based in Harrisburg and covers state government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @CNHIPA.

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