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'Virtual veto' complicates broadband expansion in Pa.

Plus, election deniers are demanding primary recounts.

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A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA

June 2, 2022 | spotlightpa.org
Broadband block, stalled changes, budget woes, gun laws, marijuana database, frozen definition, primary recount, and building inspectors.
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An obscure provision tucked into Pennsylvania law nearly two decades ago could complicate the state’s access to a massive influx of federal funding to expand broadband by creating roadblocks for local governments seeking to build their own networks.
The infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden last November includes the largest-ever federal investment in broadband. Pennsylvania could receive as much as $1 billion — enough to seriously move the needle.

But the state may now have a unique problem, Spotlight PA's Charlotte Keith reports. 

In 2004, Pennsylvania lawmakers gave telephone companies what one critic at the time described as a “virtual veto” over publicly-owned networks they saw as unwelcome competition. But for years afterward, the law was rarely invoked. 

More recently, local governments flush with federal dollars from two pandemic stimulus packages have begun ambitious broadband projects that place them directly in the crosshairs of that law, which is facing new challenges and fresh scrutiny. 

Also this week, Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents' Association intern Christina Baker has the latest on good-government changes that are stalled in the legislature. Capitol reporter Stephen Caruso examines how high-profile GOP primary losses could make for a messy budget season.

And Caruso and Angela Couloumbis explain how three suits that are being appealed to the state’s highest court could allow cities in Pennsylvania to craft their own gun laws
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"Bribery is legal. Everybody’s on the take."

—Rabbi Michael Pollack of MarchOnHarrisburg on stalled good-government changes including a gift ban for lawmakers
» Medical marijuana card company draws scrutiny for using unofficial Pa. doctor listing to attract patients

» Public database significantly undercounts former drug labs in Pa. Here’s why home buyers, renters should care.

» Spotlight PA wants your help flagging school health hazards

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

Everyone in Pennsylvania has access to broadband — at least, according to the definition set by lawmakers in the early 2000s. But ask residents of rural areas about their internet speeds, and you’ll likely hear about slow connections and outdated technology.

What happened?

In 1993, state lawmakers approved a sweeping measure they hoped would guarantee universal access to high-speed internet in Pennsylvania.

As a new Spotlight PA investigation reported, the legislature cut a deal with the existing landline phone companies, who agreed to make broadband available across the entire state — even in unprofitable rural areas — in exchange for less regulation and the chance to earn higher profits.

Ten years later, with the law due to expire, legislators debated whether to renew it. That involved setting themselves an impossible task: trying to predict the internet speeds of the future.

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

At a hearing over the proposed renewal in 2002, consultant Lee Selwyn testified that technology was changing quickly: internet speeds considered state-of-the-art five or six years ago were now hopelessly outdated. Still, “no one was seriously talking about modifying the target,” Selwyn recalled in a recent interview with Spotlight PA. 

Some representatives of the telephone companies argued at the time that 1.544 megabits per second was already faster than what many customers wanted. The companies also had a financial incentive to oppose upping the standard, because higher minimum speeds would have required them to spend more to upgrade the infrastructure they owned. 

When the bill passed in 2004, Pennsylvania’s definition of broadband was faster than the federal government’s. In the years that followed, however, the federal standard increased twice while the state’s stayed the same. By 2015, the final deadline for companies to upgrade their networks, the federal standard for download speeds was 16 times faster than Pennsylvania’s. 

A bipartisan state report from 2020 confirmed that the phone companies complied with the law. In interviews with Spotlight PA, industry representatives said Pennsylvania’s definition of broadband is only a baseline, and pointed out that most customers can get far higher speeds. 

“Unfortunately, you can’t manage technological change in statute — it’s living and breathing,” said David Bonsick, a lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Telephone Association, which represents most of the companies required by law to provide broadband. 

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 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 keep increasing. “We saw the growth from the early 1990s,” he recently told Spotlight PA. “It was going like a house on fire.” 

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

Today, the definition of broadband speeds in Pennsylvania law remains the same as in 2004. Charlotte Keith, Spotlight PA

PRIMARY PROBLEM: Audit the Vote PA falsely claimed the 2020 election was fraudulent and is now making similar claims around GOP state Sen. Ryan Aument's landslide primary victory in Lancaster, LNP reports. The race is headed toward a partial recount, with petitioners claiming — without any evidence — the election was "marred by fraud or other irregularities."

'MASS EXODUS': Philadelphia's "mass exodus" of building inspectors could have public safety implications, a union official told The Inquirer. A third of city inspectors — roughly 50 people in all — have quit since 2019. Seven former staffers told the paper why they left. Reasons included a crushing workload, disputes over pay and promotions, mismanagement, and suspected political interference.

SHIFTING STEEL: Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel is looking to the south and a new technology to cut costs, Bloomberg News reports. So-called mini mills popping up in Arkansas and Alabama can produce more metal with fewer workers and fewer unions. "This could be the beginning of the end of Mon Valley," United Steelworkers President Tom Conway said, referring to the company's larger Pennsylvania mills.

DOWN SHIFT: More than 60% of Pennsylvania municipalities shrank between 2010 and 2020, continuing a long-term trend for many. Pittsburgh-based economist Chris Briem writes in an op-ed that it's time for the state to encourage more distressed towns to reorganize and reject the status quo, adding, "inertia has ruled up to now because the state provides little incentive to pursue any of these changes."

NO SHOW: U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.) is refusing to sit for a deposition in front of the congressional panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack, per ABC27. Perry aided former President Donald Trump's bid to overturn the 2020 election and reportedly encouraged an idea to send Trump supporters to the Capitol on Jan. 6. Perry says the panel is illegitimate and that its subpoena of him was improperly served.

» AP: Supreme Court order could affect Pennsylvania Senate count

» INQUIRER: Fentanyl is soaring in Pennsylvania’s drug market in 2022

» MORNING CALL: Number of new diagnosed HIV cases ‘impossibly low’

» POLITICO: Mastriano shares documents with Jan. 6 panel

» WHYY: Advocates caution against switching electric suppliers

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

CASE CLOSED (Case No. 149)If 9999=4, 8888=8, 1816=3, 1212=0, then 1919=?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: It's the numbers one to nine in alphabetical order. (Find last week's clue here)
Congrats to Jim R., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Annette I., Jon N., Michael H., Fred O., David T., Mary B., and George S.
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