FILE - PA Norman Kennard 8-29-2019

Commissioner Norman Kennard speaks Aug. 29, 2019, during a hearing of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) cleared a hurdle some commissioners said would make it easier for rural Pennsylvanians to get access to broadband, but that another said doesn't explore potential costs.

The PUC voted, 4-1, to take over jurisdiction from the Federal Communications Commission of pole attachments, which would create a statewide forum to establish rates, terms for using utility poles and obtaining rights-of-way.

The measure also establishes a group that will advise the commission on any issues with state and federal pole attachment. The PUC Pole Attachment Working Group will consist of members of the PUC’s technical and legal staff, pole owners, pole attachers, telecommunication/broadband interest groups, consumer and small business advocates and others. The group will also be charged with handling complaints and resolving disputes.

Giving the PUC a dispute forum will expedite broadband to the commonwealth’s rural areas and it’s not just about having the ability to watch Netflix, said Commissioner Norman Kennard.

“It is education,” Kennard said. “It is health care. It is business. It’s an essential service. It’s as essential in some ways as electricity and other services for economic good, particularly in rural areas that are remote and need that access. Providing a dispute forum for pole attachments at the commission will allow for prompt resolution of fiber and wireless deployment and result in more efficient and better priced broadband expansion for the benefit of our rural residents.”

Vice Chairman David Sweet dissented, saying he supported broadband expansion but questions about costs remain.

“I’m compelled to dissent from today’s action because it entirely avoids this fundamental issue,” Sweet said. “The fiscal impact of this initiative must be explored or should have been explored before we assume this substantial federal rule obligation and not afterward.”

Chairman Gladys Brown Dutrieuille said the costs of the dispute process would be discussed more at a later date but she supported the FCC fee of $259 until the PUC knows how many will go through the process and the costs.

Commissioner Andrew Place voted for the initiative, but said he had concerns about a pending federal appeal concerning pole attachments in a written statement he read to the commission.

“The adoption of the present final rulemaking order and final form regulations cannot possibly account for all future contingencies involving the commission’s enforcement of the FCC’s pole attachment rules and related dispute resolution or adjudication,” Place said. “For various reasons, I would have preferred a constructive dialogue engagement between our staff and interested stakeholders after the receipt of the formal initial reply and comments to the commissioners proposed rules prior to the submission of the recommendation that’s before us today.”