Database definition

Pennsylvania’s definition of broadband hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Everyone in Pennsylvania has access to broadband — at least, by the definition established by state lawmakers in the early 2000s.

But ask people in rural areas about their internet speeds and you’ll likely hear about slow connections and outdated technology.

What happened?

In 1993, the state legislature approved a sweeping measure it hoped would guarantee universal high-speed Internet access in Pennsylvania.

As a recent Spotlight PA investigation reported, the law struck a deal with existing landline companies, which agreed to make broadband available statewide — even in unprofitable rural areas — by in exchange for less regulation and the opportunity to make higher profits.

Ten years later, as the law expired, lawmakers debated its renewal. It meant setting yourself an impossible task: trying to predict future internet speeds.

The 1993 law defined broadband as a minimum download speed of 1.544 megabits per second – blazing fast at the time. In the early 2000s, however, some industry experts warned lawmakers that the original standard would soon be obsolete.

At a hearing on the proposed renewal in 2002, consultant Lee Selwyn said technology was changing rapidly: Internet speeds once considered state-of-the-art were becoming hopelessly obsolete in just five or six years. Still, “no one was seriously talking about changing the target,” Selwyn recalled in a recent interview with Spotlight PA.

Some phone company representatives argued at the time that 1.544 megabits per second was already faster than many customers wanted. Companies also had a financial incentive to oppose raising the standard, as higher minimum speeds would have required them to spend more to upgrade the infrastructure they owned.

In a 2003 hearing, Rep. Fred McIlhattan (R., Clarion), who represented a rural district in western Pennsylvania, feared that “rurals will only get one hit probably for quite a while “.

Industry representatives had likened the broadband mandate to having to build a highway to every community in the state.

“If this highway is built too small, then my people are going to be back behind the eight ball,” McIlhattan said.

A phone company executive reassured him that Pennsylvania’s definition of broadband was “much more aggressive” than the federal government’s.

This was true in 2004 when the bill was passed. In the years that followed, however, the federal standard increased twice while the state standard remained the same.

In 2015, the state’s last deadline for companies to upgrade their networks, the federal standard for download speeds was 16 times faster than Pennsylvania’s. The state’s minimum download speed, added by lawmakers in 2004, was also lower than the federal definition.

A 2020 bipartisan state report confirmed that the phone companies were following the law. In interviews with Spotlight PA, industry representatives said the state’s definition of broadband is just a benchmark and most customers can get much higher speeds.

“Unfortunately, you can’t deal with technological change in law – it’s living and breathing,” said David Bonsick, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Telephone Association, which represents most companies required by law to provide the top debit.

David Malfara, CEO of Big Bang Broadband, a Florida-based consulting firm, largely agrees. Pennsylvania should have taken a different approach, he said. Instead of locking in a standard for the next decade in 2004, he argues, lawmakers should have created a more flexible definition that could have been updated.

Malfara was one of the experts who warned lawmakers in the early 2000s that demand for faster internet speeds would continue to rise. “We saw the growth starting in the early 1990s,” he recently told Spotlight PA. “It was like a house on fire.”

Lawmakers received his testimony, he recalled in an email, with an “empty, non-expressive response.”

Since 2016, Rep. Pam Snyder (D., Greene) has introduced three bills to increase the state’s definition of broadband speeds set in 2004; none of them were put to a vote in committee. A similar bill sponsored by Rep. Perry Stambaugh (R., Perry) died in committee last year.

The speeds enshrined in law in the early 1990s put Pennsylvania ahead of its time, Snyder said. “But they adopted it and then moved on.” Those speeds “don’t even come close to providing people with what they need in today’s world,” she said.

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