Bring telecom regulation into the 21st century

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By Sherry Robinson

We need better broadband access and infrastructure in New Mexico, especially in the rural areas. This year, the Legislature took a big step forward with a bill to spend $50 million over five years to bring broadband to schools statewide.
The Democrats are congratulating themselves for this success, and they should. But they can’t congratulate themselves for the state’s backward attitude toward telecommunications regulation. Telecom is the flip side of the same coin. It’s one reason neighboring states move forward, while New Mexico remains stuck.
Senate Bill 159, which the governor signed, allows the state to buy hardware for schools to link to the Internet. It’s a real plus for education.
Senate Joint Memorial 4 got less attention. It creates a task force to study what role the state should play in building broadband infrastructure so that all New Mexicans have access to a broadband network.
Political reporter and blogger Steve Terrell has been throwing cold water on legislative memorials as a waste of time and paper, and I mostly agree with him. Memorials can also provide the information and arguments to support future legislation.
It’s hardly news that New Mexico lags in technology adoption and Internet access; great distances and small population don’t inspire private industry to provide service here. The state Department of Information Technology’s broadband program, now in its fifth and final year, has provided a lot of information and a set of recommendations.
Wait. Five years of study? After many other studies? And now a memorial calling for another study? You begin to see why nothing ever happens. It’s appropriate to think about what the state’s role should be in building broadband, but we suffer from analysis paralysis.
The memorial’s task force could be a good thing. Because it will have industry representation, one recommendation will be regulatory reform.
This year Sen. Phil Griego, a San Jose Democrat, tried to get a bill passed that would bring telecom regulation into the 21st century. His SB 152 directed the state to regulate the big carriers (CenturyLink and Windstream) in the same way it regulates small, rural carriers. (In 1999, the state relaxed regulation on the rural carriers.)
In an op-ed, Griego argued that “our state’s telecommunications companies are governed by an antiquated and confusing regulatory scheme where some companies are heavily regulated while others have almost no regulation.”
Among other things, the state requires companies like CenturyLink to spend money on outdated wire phone technology, when it could be spending money on broadband and other 21st century services. Even though CenturyLink may not serve your area, chances are you’re still dependent on this or another big company for trunk lines.
Democrats on the state Public Regulation Commission opposed the bill because it was too much change too fast; the PRC suggested instead that the industry and the PRC come up with some proposals for regulatory reform and work with lawmakers before the next session. Good idea.
For years, CenturyLink and its predecessor Qwest have pleaded for regulatory change. It didn’t happen because some Democrats still think deregulation is the bogeyman. So here we are in 2014, left behind again, while other states have made these changes.
Griego’s bill hurdled three Senate committees and then died on the Senate floor. Why? Because Majority Floor Leader Michael Sanchez, who voted against it in committee, didn’t like it. A bill that has passed muster in committees deserves a vote on the floor, but one man routinely abuses his position to bottle up legislation he doesn’t like. Who elected Sanchez?
Let’s not forget the PRC itself. When you vote for commissioners this year, don’t elect the same old people with the same old ideas. If the PRC enters this century, telecom can too.