Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Illinois House extends telecommunications law

By Jamey Dunn

The Illinois House voted today to make some tweaks to the state’s Telecommunications Act and extend the law until 2015.

The law is due to sunset this year. It was last rewritten in 2010, and telecommunications leaders say that it was time for some tweaks. “When it was last rewritten, just to put it into perspective... that was exactly when the first tablet, the first iPad, came out. Now look around; look at how many people have iPads and tablets. ... The pace of change is accelerating,” Paul La Schiazza, president of AT&T Illinois, told Illinois Issues earlier this year as negotiations were taking place. “It’s absolutely clear that regulation cannot keep up with how people are using these technologies and how they are communicating, so I think it’s absolutely overdue to address this again given what’s happened in the marketplace.”

AT&T was seeking rollbacks on the amount of video network capacity that they were required to build, as well as in investments in older copper wire infrastructure, which is associated with traditional land-line telephones. Senate Bill 1664 does the first but not the latter. It also would allow Internet and video service providers the same access to condos and apartments as cable providers. The bill contains the same so-called safe harbor protections that guarantee customers access to land line phones. Telecommunications companies would prefer to focus their investments in broadband and infrastructure associated with newer technologies, but sponsor Rep. Kelly Burke, an Evergreen Park Democrat, said “the industries have worked diligently” with consumer protection groups “to make sure consumers continue to be protected.” The bill also has support from unions and business groups.

Scott Musser, AARP Illinois associate state director, said his organization supports the bill because he says it would “make sure people continue to have affordable, reliable access to their land line telephones.”

The measure would also extend legislation regulating 911 emergency services for a year and create a task force that would work with the Illinois Commerce Commission on a plan to properly fund 911 services. Current funding comes from fees paid by telephone customers, but some call centers are in danger of closing. “We need to extend the 911 act. Without it, 911 as we know it goes away,” said Rep. Don Moffitt, a Republican from Gilson. Moffitt, who headed an Emergency Medical Task Force that held hearings throughout the state, said the issue came up at many of the group’s hearings. “We really need to get to the point of having funds available and increase some funding. ...We have some 911 call centers in the state of Illinois that are on the brink of shutting down,” he said. If call centers close, their duties are taken on by the Illinois State Police.

All House members in attendance today voted in favor of the bill, but some said it would not go far enough to loosen regulations on telecommunication companies as they seek to upgrade the state’s technological infrastructure. “This is a start, but beyond today we must begin immediately to go farther if we want to increase business opportunities investment in broadband and wireless. We must go further than what we’ve done today,” said Mundelein Republican Rep. Ed Sullivan Jr. “I want to put those on notice that this is only a beginning, and if you think that this is the end, you have just shut out business in the state of Illinois.”

However, Musser said other states have opted to keep safe-haven requirements in place. “What we know from other states is, in 2012 about 10 other states rejected similar proposals by AT&T, so it is certainly not the case that we’re an outlier here.” He said that right now, cell phone service is too spotty in some areas of the state to expect residents to give up land lines. “Who knows? Maybe in two years cell phone technology is better, and there is access all across the state.” But he said for now, many areas, especially in southern and western Illinois, have inadequate service.

Supporters were optimistic that the measure would help spur economic growth in the state. “The bill removes obstacles for private-sector wired-broadband investment in the state,” said Rep. Arthur Turner, a Chicago Democrat. “It creates jobs to build a network, then it creates jobs through the power of broadband. And it creates jobs in every area of our economy. ... This bill encourages more private sector investment in broadband without a tax credit, without a tax incentive and without taxpayer dollars.” The measure now goes to the Senate. Since the measure has support from groups on all sides of the issue, it will likely sail to Gov. Pat Quinn’s Desk. Quinn signed the similar 2010 rewrite.

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