Over the next couple of weeks, the Maryland General Assembly will consider a modest step in helping to further the spread of high-speed Internet services in the state. It could be a positive step, or a harmful misstep.
Most state officials who know the telecommunications world know they have little power to influence the deployment of broadband services. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in its “wisdom,” has preempted most of what state governments can do in the way of regulation.
What states should be able to do, however, is to collect information about broadband, much as it collects information about interconnection agreements. That’s what Del. Herman Taylor (D-Dist. 14) wants to do with his legislation HB 987 to require broadband providers to report their deployment to the state Public Service Commission (PSC), which would in turn post the information online. The bill has been cross-filed in the State Senate as SB 515, by Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Dist. 20).
(For the record, I am working with Taylor on the bill. Further, he represents the area in which I live.)
An alternative bill has also been introduced, HB1144. This bill, by Del. Tom Hucker (D-Dist. 20), is the work of the backers of Connect Kentucky, which as we’ve seen, operates on behalf of telephone companies. In fact, this bill has the backing of Verizon and Comcast. It’s a state version of the legislation sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) in the U.S. Congress, and includes the tell-tale language that signals Connect’s interests. Approval of this bill would be a glaring mistake for the state.
On March 4, the House Economic Matters Committee in Annapolis will have a hearing on HB 1144 while, at the same time, the Senate Judiciary Committee has a hearing on SB 515. The House panel will have a hearing on the Taylor bill on March 11.
The reasons for enacting the Taylor bill are fairly straightforward – so that a comprehensive picture could be compiled of where broadband is deployed in Maryland and, as importantly, where it is not. Even within some communities, Verizon has deployed its FIOS fiber network, when a few blocks away homes are still on dial up.
Lots of people could use this information. Individual homeowners could determine if broadband is in a neighborhood in which they want to buy a home. Businesses could see what the technological profile of the state is. Policymakers could determine if state incentives are needed to bring broadband to regions that don’t have it, as the state has done with the rural Eastern Shore region.
But the phone company and cable company are working to sink the bill, for some pretty flimsy reasons. At the top of the list is the requirement that data be sent to the PSC. Those three little letters are the equivalent of waving garlic in front of a vampire. Neither the telephone company nor Comcast wants anything to do with state regulators, even if no actual regulation is taking place and even if there’s no regulation that would be allowed. A lobbyist told me that reporting data would be the “first step” to regulation, disregarding an entire body of law that, for the moment, says otherwise. This bill simply requires companies licensed to do business in the state of Maryland for the public interest, convenience and necessity to report information on where their services are. Nothing more. Nothing less. There is no reason to make this more complicated than it need be.
The bill could be changed to find another agency to accept the data. The state’s Department of Business and Economic Development already does some mapping and is familiar with broadband. The key is that a state agency has to be the one to which the public goes for information. That’s the big difference between the Taylor bill and the Hucker bill.
Hucker, the former executive director of Progressive Maryland, would allow a Connect Kentucky operation to be formed in Maryland. Any data would be filtered through a group controlled by the industries reporting the information. The public would rightly be suspicious when the companies control what information is made public and which isn’t. What good is information reported to a third party if it’s not made public?
The question of how information is to be used is another objection from Verizon and Comcast. What about proprietary information, they ask. The response is that if everyone’s deployment data is made public, then no one will have anything to hide. Verizon will be able to check on Comcast deployments, and vice versa. If Comcast sees FIOS going into a particular neighborhood, then it may want to increase its data speeds. Full information is one of the cornerstones of competition. What little competition there is in the broadband market needs all the help it can get.
“Why do you have to put it online? Why can’t people just call the phone company?” That was the question one lobbyist asked, saying that no one goes online for information. That seems a pretty limited view of the products the company is selling.
There were also some concerns expressed by one lobbyist about network security if deployments were put on a map. Verizon and Comcast seem to be able to find each other’s networks with backhoes now, so if physical security is the concern, a mapping bill won’t alleviate the problem. Any would-be network disrupter would only have to look up at telephone poles or at front yards to see the tell-tale signs of network deployment. That issue, of course, doesn’t take into account that most network security is threatened by computer code, not by people with shovels.
The Connect Kentucky alternative would create a private bureaucracy funded with state money that would, to some degree, duplicate efforts already undertaken to figure out what’s needed for a state’s rural areas. The cost for the community “teams” and mapping would run into the millions of dollars.
Although there is nothing in the bill that specifies Connect by name, the identical language used in the Hucker bill also has shown up in legislation drafted by Connect Kentucky in that state as well as in the Federal bill. The Maryland bill requires the state contract with a public-private partnership. The bill says, as do Connect’s other bills, that to qualify for a state grant, “The contracted organization shall have established competency in working with the public and private sectors to accomplish wide scale deployment and adoption of telecommunications and information technology.”
That would seem general enough until that qualification is compared with the Connect language in other states. And with the backing of Verizon and Comcast, there’s no doubt where the heavy influence would be.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with going to communities to discern needs for broadband or with the state working with the private sector. But such an effort should be run by an experienced public official, as Jane Patterson is doing with North Carolina’s e-NC Authority.
At a minimum, Maryland would be better off having transparent access to information than having it filtered by those with a vested interest. Leave Connect Kentucky at home.