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State needs to close the gap between telecom technology, regulation

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There's an old saying that technology always runs three furlongs ahead of regulation.

That's truer than ever today. No disrespect intended to regulators, it's just that technology and regulation are two very different beasts.

Technology moves with the speed of the human imagination, but regulation advances at the speed of the political process. It's really no contest, but every now and then, regulation makes an ambitious attempt to close the gap.

That's happening in Pennsylvania right now as the state legislature tries to modernize the laws governing the state's telecommunications market. Over the course of 20 years, that market has been changed beyond recognition by the twin forces of technology and competition.

Today's market is crowded with traditional landline companies, cable TV companies, satellite service providers, cellular firms, even high-tech giants from Silicon Valley. Most of the competitors vying for Pennsylvania consumers' business didn't exist 20 years ago, and neither did most of the services they're battling to provide you.

Just about all the players are offering a full smorgasbord of phone, pay-TV and broadband Internet services. The wireless phones that once seemed like yuppie toys are now fundamental communication tools for ordinary folks. So fundamental that Pennsylvania households are rapidly becoming "cord cutters" — customers who eliminate their traditional landline phone service and go with wireless only. And wireless phones have evolved from convenient devices for making phone calls to sophisticated pocket computers with more than a million mobile apps available.

The richness of technology and choice in Pennsylvania's telecom market offers unprecedented benefits for consumers and investment in our communications infrastructure, but there's one big catch: Regulations governing the telecom market here are still rooted in a bygone era.

It's the era before 1984, when "telecom" meant primarily voice calls delivered as a utility service by Bell of Pennsylvania, which was our local representative of the nationwide Bell System monopoly. In return for a monopoly in most of the state, Bell of Pennsylvania was tightly regulated by the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission.

The Bell monopoly has been gone for 30 years now, but the descendants of Ma Bell are still regulated by the PUC. This is not only unfair to companies like Verizon and AT&T, along with our independent, mostly rural regulated phone companies, but it also adds up to missed opportunities for Pennsylvania.

Specifically, current law requires our regulated phone providers to spend millions of dollars a year maintaining landline networks that consumers are abandoning in droves. These funds could be better invested in offering consumers more choice in advanced services and expanding the investment these companies are already making in bringing high-speed broadband services to all parts of the state.

The bill now in the legislature (HB 1608) would liberate these companies from pouring money down the drain of unwanted landline infrastructure. It would free traditional landline providers to make competitive offers to consumers without the albatross of getting regulatory approval first.

And, importantly, it would do this while maintaining consumer protection for the shrinking group of customers who are still solely dependent on landline services in rural areas where there is not sufficient competition to hold down prices.

Technology continues to gallop ahead, and passage of HB 1608 won't bring regulation neck and neck with its faster rival. But it will help close the gap and in the process bring major benefits to Pennsylvania.

Chris Reilly is a York County commissioner.

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