Pa. gearing up to take advantage of federal broadband funds

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Pennsylvania is preparing for an influx of broadband funding expected from the federal infrastructure bill.

The new funding follows a pandemic that pushed many people online and revealed widespread challenges with broadband access. Federal legislators answered the call with $65 billion in the infrastructure bill, in addition to some broadband funding in pandemic relief packages. But this isn’t the first time large amounts of money have been pumped into broadband.

For many years, Federal Communications Commission programs have offered funding for broadband expansion. But many places still lack access, or affordable access, and in some cases, it’s not entirely clear where the money went. This time, states are hoping to make sure the dollars translate into access.

Following complaints from broadband advocates in 2020 and 2021 about a lack of funding and structure for broadband expansion in the state, Pennsylvania legislators unanimously passed a bill to create a broadband authority for the state Dec. 15.

“For too long, we have talked about the need for broadband without action. That inaction ended this week,” said Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Green/Fayette/Washington, a co-sponsor of the bill, in a Dec. 15 statement. “This piece of landmark, bipartisan legislation will finally prepare Pennsylvania to deploy broadband across this commonwealth. This has been a long time coming.”

Broadband authority

The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority will be responsible for managing the federal funding Pennsylvania gets for broadband. The state is set to receive at least $100 million from the federal infrastructure bill, with potential to get more funding.

The authority will be led by a board of directors including representatives from the state House and Senate, the departments of agriculture, education, community and economic development and general services, the Public Utility Commission, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and the state budget office.

“We need a place for [federal funding] to funnel into the state,” Rep. Tina Pickett, R-Bradford/Sullivan/Susquehanna, one of the bill’s sponsors, told Farm and Dairy. “We need a designated site where we can be able to determine that we are adequately spreading it across the state … we want to make sure that there’s equitable spending of this money.”

Needs

The authority will also implement a statewide broadband plan. The goal is to start with areas that don’t have any broadband access, and then upgrade other areas that have service but need upgrades. About three or four years ago — before the pandemic — phone calls about broadband became prominent for Pickett’s office.

“It’s not going to get any less in demand if and when this restricted period is lessened,” she said. “We have to get prepared and built out for that.”

The bill includes a sunset clause for either 10 years after the authority goes into effect, or after all the funding has been used and responsibilities have been completed for the authority.

“I think that’s always a good idea,” Pickett explained. “It kind of forces us to re-look at where we are.”

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau applauded the bill’s passage in a Dec. 16 statement.

“Rural families and farm businesses have been under served, and the need to have access to high-speed internet is essential to compete and participate in the digital age,” said president Rick Ebert.

Planning

The key to getting that access out there is outreach and accurate data, according to the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission. The commission, which is a regional organization that focuses on metropolitan planning for Pittsburgh and the surrounding counties, launched its Connected Initiative with several other partners in the region during the pandemic.

“It was a natural evolution for us,” said Vincent Valdes, executive director of the commission. “Really, if you think about it, connectivity and virtual access is the new transportation mode, so why not treat it and plan for it as you would any other?”

And, Valdes told Farm and Dairy, it makes sense for the commission to take that on in the region — it has a lot of experience with long-range planning and managing infrastructure funding.

The commission already has a long-range transportation plan, in addition to a shorter-range, five-year transportation improvement program. It decided to mirror that by developing a connectivity improvement plan that will include details on the region’s current connectivity situation and recommendations for projects to prioritize.

Broadband came up as an issue organically, through conversations with communities in the region. Communities know they need access, but getting funding and making projects happen can be a challenge. That’s what the commission is addressing with its connectivity improvement plan.

Accuracy

The commission has been looking at both rural and urban areas in its region. So far, it has focused on surveys and outreach to assess what the internet situation looks like in different areas.

“I think what we have determined is that the barriers … to connectivity are a spectrum,” Valdes said. Different people have different needs, and while some places may struggle with getting affordable access, others maybe not even have access available. “You try to depersonalize it; try to de-geographize it. It’s not about where I live; it’s about the barriers that exist for me.”

Having accurate information about what areas are facing barriers, and what barriers they are facing, will help with directing federal dollars as that money goes out, said Shannon O’Connell, director of the commission’s office of communications and public engagement.

The commission is still working out exactly how many responses it got to online and phone surveys, but it hit its targets for responses, O’Connell told Farm and Dairy.

State

Valdes said he is glad to see work on broadband being done at the state level. He hopes the commission can help support statewide efforts, since the state’s broadband authority will be doing similar work at a state level.

“My opinion is that southwestern Pennsylvania right now is in a leadership position statewide … in trying to do this in a very rational, stepwise, objective way, and that’s the key — trying to address the actual need, not based on opinion or kind of geographic preference or other factors that aren’t really significant,” he said.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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