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'Ghost Poles' Bill Advances

Pa. House Republicans Seek More Telecom Accountability

A Pennsylvania House committee advanced a bipartisan bill on “ghost poles” Tuesday amid a push to increase telecom accountability by six Republicans from rural districts. The bills respond to constituents’ many complaints about Frontier Communications, state legislators said in interviews last week.

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The House Consumer Protection Committee unanimously supported HB-1619 by voice at a livestreamed hearing. The measure by Rep. Alec Ryncavage (R) would require the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to make rules to speed replacement of damaged poles and eliminate double-pole situations where a replacement pole is built alongside an older one that isn’t immediately removed. The committee unanimously amended the bill to stop utilities from asking ratepayers to pay costs incurred by the bill.

Ryncavage expects to get HB-1619 on the House floor within two months, the Republican told us. The freshman House member touted bipartisan support in urban and rural areas. Sen. Lynda Schlegel Culver (R) would champion the bill if it gets to the Senate, he said. Ryncavage introduced HB-1619 in August as part of a package with five other telecom accountability bills, amid the Pennsylvania PUC’s ongoing review of a formal complaint against Frontier by state consumer and small business advocates (see 2303160074). Only HB-1619 received a hearing; Ryncavage said he doesn’t expect the House to vote on the six bills together.

House Consumer Protection hasn’t scheduled hearings on HB-1620 through HB-1624, said HB-1620 sponsor Rep. Clint Owlett (R). “I have not heard from [Chairman Robert Matzie (D)] whether he’s interested in doing a hearing or talking about these bills.” They may not be moving due to the House changing majorities more than once during the session, said HB-1621 sponsor Rep. Tina Pickett (R): Those fluctuations in the House -- currently 102 Democrats to 101 Republicans -- impeded the chamber’s ability to work. Matzie didn’t comment.

Ryncavage, Owlett, Pickett and three other lawmakers from the House’s northeast Republican delegation had been crafting their own bills based on their specific “backyard” issues, said the HB-1619 sponsor: They joined forces to “get a broader conversation going.” Rural telecom companies are having “a hard time hiring talent to maintain their network” and high inflation made them less willing to upgrade equipment, so customers are facing frequent outages, Ryncavage said. Many consumers complain to his office and the PUC, he said. “I’m calling lobbyists. I’m calling those companies directly. And everybody’s sort of [giving] the runaround.” Incoming federal support might help, “but there is a need for regulation,” the Republican said.

Ryncavage’s backyard issue was double poles. “These ghost poles are sometimes hanging over school bus stops” and on Main Streets, he said. “It’s a couple lag bolts attached to another telephone pole and they sometimes fall down.” And the lawmaker raised concerns that, with billions of dollars coming into the state for expanding fiber, “there’s actually no room on the poles.” The PUC rulemaking required by HB-1619 could take 18 months by usual process, but Ryncavage said he expects rules would be ready in time for federally funded deployment if the bill is passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro (D).

The Pennsylvania PUC recently reverse-preempted the FCC’s pole attachment authority, but state rules provide no timeline or penalties for how long companies have to replace poles, said Ryncavage. Nor was there a system for tracking ghost poles, he said. HB-1619 aims to clean up deadlines, require logging of dead poles and hold companies accountable, he said. The lawmaker said his bill was “not designed to attack companies” and he was glad to get support from the PUC, workers, utilities and the telecom industry.

'Outrageously Poor' Service

Pickett received “an untold number of phone calls from constituents who have reached the edge of trying to solve it for themselves” with Frontier’s “outrageously poor” service, she told us. Pickett said she and Owlett spoke with the state consumer and small business advocates to put together a case to present to the PUC. Not knowing how the PUC would resolve the formal complaint, they joined with four other House Republicans to “back it up with legislation,” she said. Though sponsored by Republicans -- who tend to represent rural districts in Pennsylvania -- none of the bills should be partisan, said Pickett.

Pickett’s HB-1621 specifically responds to complaints about Frontier technicians not showing up to appointments after telling customers to stay home all day. “They don’t come. They don’t tell you they’re not coming.” When customers -- who may have taken the day off work -- call Frontier to say nobody showed, the company generally makes a new appointment that can be three weeks from the originally scheduled date, said Pickett: And Frontier sometimes misses that appointment, too.

Some customers' phone and internet have been out for six to eight weeks, said Pickett. Losing landline service can be especially distressing for constituents in her district, which has only 50% cellular coverage, she said. HB-1621 would require telecom companies to pay customers $25 for each hour a scheduled repair is delayed, “but frankly we don’t want them to pay the penalty,” said Pickett. “We want them to provide the service.” Frontier hasn’t spoken to the lawmaker about the bill, she said.

Owlett developed HB-1620 after hundreds showed up to complain about Frontier at Pennsylvania PUC hearings in his district earlier this year, he told us. A first responder told a story about having volunteer firefighters directing traffic on a two-lane road for 12 hours while waiting for Frontier to come move a downed line, said Owlett.

Fire companies are putting on how many chicken dinners and fundraisers a year just to be able to keep their doors open?” he asked. “And here they are out babysitting a telephone line.” HB-1620 would give telecom companies 90 minutes to arrive; a fire company could then bill the company $1,000 per hour for additional time, he said. Owlett said he hasn’t talked with Frontier about it.

Telcos would also have to pay $1,000 an hour to compensate fire companies that have to keep a volunteer at the station due to a 911 outage, under HB-1622 by Rep. Martin Causer (R). HB-1623 by Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R) would require telcos facing a formal complaint at the PUC to report to the agency and legislature on “all poles, wires and related facilities that are failing or at risk of failing within 365 days after the date of initial hearing on the complaint.” The telco would have to include a list of broken poles, plus lines or poles “secured by rope, zip ties or other improvised fasteners,” it said. HB-1624 by Rep. Joe Hamm (R) would require telcos to immediately report 911 outages to the commission.

Pickett saw “some change” at Frontier after this year's PUC hearings, but the legislator continues to receive complaints from constituents, she said. Frontier provided a liaison -- based in Texas -- to contact about problems in her district, but results have been “hit and miss,” she said. Frontier didn’t comment Tuesday.

Expecting a PUC decision as soon as November in the Frontier probe, Pickett said she’d be happy if agency action mooted the six House bills. The legislators aren’t “tied” to them, she said. “We want the service for our people.”