New Laws Are The Way To Grow Maine’s Affordable Internet Access
Regulation of the internet is receiving a great amount of attention and debate since the Appeals Court ruling that the internet is a public utility back in June. The federal government and states both regulate public utilities (the internet), in certain cases, very differently; some employing more contemporary systems and rules than others. Unfortunately, Maine is decades behind in adapting its public utility regime to the rise of the internet; the current laws and regulations mostly date before the internet became a necessity for everyday life. Today, Maine struggles for good internet access, and the bad regulatory framework is a factor. Maine’s utility laws need to be updated to reflect the ways in which the world has changed. Maine’s PUC lacks the tools necessary to make the changes via rules. In the next session, the Legislature should start the process of reviewing Maine’s utility laws as they relate to telecommunications and the internet. The goal should not be more regulation, but changed regulation that matches today’s world.
In this review, we will be faced with the same struggle as the FCC: how to make a public utility available on reasonable terms without innovation and economy killing regulation? One answer is increased competition. If consumers have a variety of choices for good internet access and can “vote with their wallet”, then little government regulation is necessary. Regulators don’t have to get involved in the details of pricing, quality, features, and practices if consumers can just switch from a bad provider to a good. However, if there is no real choice and consumers and businesses are stuck with one or two providers, it will be necessary to regulate heavily. Any update of regulation should be pro competition.
The most significant area in which competition is lacking is the public rights-of-way and utility poles. The public has a strong interest in not having multiple sets of utility poles in the same right-of-way. In return for permission to locate in rights-of-way, traditional utility pole owners agreed to share utility poles with other utilities so there will be only one pole line. The laws and rules that govern utility pole sharing are decades old, and don’t envision a world where there are new internet providers that compete with traditional phone companies; the laws don’t recognize the internet as a public utility. The incumbent telephone company is given enormous power over the ability of new internet companies to attach fiber optic cable to the utility poles. Incumbents use this power to significantly increase both the cost of connecting to poles and the amount of time it takes to connect to a pole. This can greatly slow the ability of service providers to connect to the consumer in a timely fashion and reduces the availability of high-speed internet connections in Maine.
If Maine is to have inexpensive, reliable, and universally available internet access, the legislature must update our laws.