By JONATHAN N. CRAWFORD, Capital News Service
ANNAPOLIS - Spurred by complaints from residents who lack access to a high-speed Internet connection, a Maryland legislator wants the state to take an inventory of where the service is available as a first step toward determining whether poor and rural areas are underserved.
The chief sponsor of the bill, Delegate Herman L. Taylor, D-Montgomery said that currently there is no state oversight of where and when companies must provide high speed Internet service.
"This is a business venture that is really unchecked. There are no standards," Taylor said at a hearing Tuesday before the House Economic Matters Committee.
Representatives of companies which supply broadband service, such as Verizon, say they are working hard to extend the service to all areas of the state, and that discrimination on the basis of race or income is illegal and against company policy.
Broadband is defined in the bill as an Internet service where data transmission speeds exceed 768 kilobits per second and includes digital subscriber line (DSL), cable modems and wireless broadband. It is important because it allows quick downloading of material from the Internet, and is becoming increasingly necessary for those who seek access to movies and music.
Access to broadband internet has been particularly contentious in Maryland's rural areas where the costs associated with connecting isolated communities are higher, according to rural legislators.
The bill would require service providers to report to the state Public Service Commission on a quarterly basis the availability of broadband, including the footprint of their service area, the percentage of households offered the service and the data transmission speeds.
Taylor said that without some type of regulation, broadband service providers would lack the incentive to expand their service into poor areas because the companies would be less likely to recoup the capital costs associated with the infrastructure investment.
Telecommunication companies including Verizon and Comcast, as well as technology companies and anti-regulation advocacy groups were united against the bill.
"Is broadband everywhere? No. ... But Verizon is working hard to expand that to the areas where it is not. And there are a number of ways this is happening without regulation," said Verizon spokesman Harry J. Mitchell after the hearing.
Mitchell said that selective deployment of broadband infrastructure based on race or income was against the law and "not part of Verizon's corporate DNA," he said that other factors do play a part.
"There has to be some demand. You don't put in an investment and hope people come. ... Why have broadband if you don't have computers? It doesn't really help much," Mitchell said.
He also said that the reporting requirement of the bill would be financially burdensome, particularly for all the small businesses that provide it as a service.
Currently broadband access is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communication Commission. But according to John Horrigan, an associate director of research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the FCC only encourages expansion of broadband access by market forces.
Ben Scott, a proponent of the bill and a member of advocacy group Free Press, said that this legislation was needed to bridge the digital divide at a time when high-speed Internet access is crucial. "[Internet access] is no longer a luxury. It's a necessity," Scott said.