Pennsylvania Eyes New Universal Service Fund

9/28/2003 8:00 PM Eastern

In an effort to promote broadband deployment, Pennsylvania legislators are drafting bills to create a telephone-only Public Utilities Commission and create a multibillion-dollar universal service fund.

For its part, cable is trying to stay out of the crosshairs of the regulatory flurry. Currently, cable services aren't subject to state regulation, and the Pennsylvania Cable Telecommunications Association would like to keep it that way.

When legislators say "broadband" they need to specify whether they mean digital subscriber line service, T1 lines or cable-modem service, said PCTA president Dan Tunnell.

The bills have been prompted by the impending sunset of a 1993 state policy, Chapter 30, that urged the state's then 37 telephone competitors to deploy fast data services by 2015. Lawmakers now think that date is too late: the bills headed for the legislature would demand full high-speed deployment, to 1.54 megabits per second, by 2008.

Sen. Jake Corman (R-Bellefonte), chairman of the communications and technology committee, announced the elements of his proposed bill on Sept. 16. (A telecom reform bill has also been introduced in the state House.)

Corman wants to form a five-member Pennsylvania Telecommunications Commission to handle telco regulation, promote deployment of new broadband infrastructure and insure universal access.

If approved, Pennsylvania would be the first state to have a telco-exclusive PUC, he said.

Corman made clear that he supports a hands-off policy for voice-over-Internet protocol. He proposes a five-year moratorium on regulation or taxation of VoIP, he said during the Webcast in which he detailed his bill.

Cable representatives have already met with Corman to stress that the industry has already voluntarily spent $4 billion to upgrade networks in Pennsylvania, Tunnell said.

Eighty to 90% of the state's cable systems, serving 3.5 million subscribers, have been rebuilt already, most with two-way capability, he added.

"Broadband is not a jurisdictional service. He's mixing two issues," Tunnell said. Cable representatives have suggested that a better approach is to "tweak" the existing Chapter 30 to require that the incumbent local exchange carriers extend DSL service to unserved communities.

While cable lobbyists are trying to track the massive broadband policy changes, they will also try to fend off an attempt by a Delaware County legislator, state Rep. Greg Vitali, to mandate that local regulatory authorities require cable systems to carry state legislative coverage provided by Pennsylvania Cable Network.

Tunnell said PCN has a $3 million annual budget provided by the cable operators. It's voluntary for a local system to carry it, though.

"It's like mandating carriage of ESPN," Tunnell said, adding states are pre-empted by the Federal Communications Commission on programming issues.

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