The attempt to make public disparities in broadband deployment in Maryland ended Friday. Technically, the sponsor of HB 1069, Del. Herman Taylor, asked that the bill not be considered at a committee meeting. It was either that or face the unappeasing prospect of having most of the committee vote against it, so Taylor took the graceful way out.
In essence, the House of Delegates Economic Affairs Committee allied itself with two big companies, Verizon and Comcast, which in recent days each raised their rates while supposedly competing against each other, rather than help consumers by taking an action to help spur competition in Maryland broadband services.
The big companies did a fabulous job of fooling an uninterested and incurious committee by focusing their attention on the “findings” section of the bill that suggested that it would be nice to apply in Maryland the Net Neutrality policy in force in AT&T states as a result of the takeover of BellSouth.
The one actual requirement in the bill was that broadband providers report to the state on their deployment, but that got totally lost in the fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign from Verizon, Comcast and their acolytes in labor unions, business groups and conservative “think tanks.”
Without fail, the bill's opponents testified at the Feb. 27 committee hearing that the bill would regulate the Internet, leading to loss of jobs, loss of incentive to invest in networks, and other horribles. Labor leaders, business groups and telecommunications policy “scholars,” all said without qualification that the bill would regulate the Internet.
All were wrong, of course. Part of the confusion arose from a somewhat convoluted letter from the state attorney general which said that “Ordinarily, a 'finding' of the General Assembly would impose no substantive requirements” on anyone.
The Feb. 27 letter, to Delegate Mary Ann Love, then said that Love had “asked that I [the attorney general] assume, for the purposes of your question, that this portion of the bill has substantive effect.” Of course, the opinion then said the state couldn't regulate the Internet.
That structure served to confuse more than to illuminate. Those reporters who covered the bill also interpreted the letter as saying the bill would have Maryland overstepping its bounds and looked to the language of the individual “findings”, taken straight from the merger agreement, rather than understand that the “findings” were only a recommendation. They were wrong, also.
Taylor requested a clarification, and in a follow up letter on March 9, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn Rowe, who had written the earlier letter, wrote that the Net Neutrality part of the bill “is not stated as a regulatory provision, but as a 'finding' of the legislature.” As a result, she wrote, “Such a 'finding' does not impose substantive regulatory requirements on any person [a term of art that includes companies.]”
In other words, the opposition to the bill was based on a false premise and all the learned analysis from opponents was totally incorrect. We could have a debate on the benefits of Net Neutrality, but that would have served no purpose because no one was imposing it.
Even upon learning of the new clarification, however, the members of the Committee still don't understand what they are dealing with. A senior member of the Committee, in an email, said that Congress had been dealing with the issue for two years, so how could the legislature deal with it in the 45 days left in the session? The answer is simple. You didn't have to, and couldn't if you wanted to.
If the Committee had some questions about the recommendation, it could have removed it and kept in the substantive piece requiring the broadband service deployment. But markups aren't conducted in Annapolis as they are in Congress. Taylor never got the opportunity to offer that amendment, and was told that it wouldn't have mattered much even if he had.
Instead, this delegate, from a county outside of Washington, lost the chance to see whether his constituents were being served with high-speed Internet in a provision that could, as Rowe said, “arguably advance competition.” But who wants that? Certainly not companies that compete with each other by raising their rates.