The Pennsylvania State Grange wants Gov. Tom Wolf to put his money and resources where his mouth is when it comes to broadband internet access.
Wolf and a bipartisan coalition of 10 other governors sent a letter June 25 to President Donald Trump and Congressional leaders urging them to make investments to close the broadband gap.
“We must work together as past generations have done to provide a service fundamental to life in America today,” the letter states. “It is time for the Rural Electrification Act of our generation.”
The letter was also signed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, and the governors of Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Kansas, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin.
The governors cite a Federal Communications Commission estimate from 2017 that said it would cost $80 billion to bring high-speed internet to unserved areas of the country and a later report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that estimated it would cost between $130 and $150 billion over the next five to seven years to adequately support rural coverage.
The Pennsylvania State Grange President Wayne Campbell wants Wolf to lead by example, starting with his own state.
“We respectfully point out that good intentions are best demonstrated at home,” Campbell wrote in a response to the governors’ letter.
The Pennsylvania State Grange has taken up expanded broadband access at a top legislative priority. The group testified repeatedly before legislative committees on the matter and hosted a program on broadband access the past three years at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.
“This issue is to this century what rural electrification was to the 1900s,” said Vince Phillips, legislative director for the Pennsylvania State Grange. “You had an electrical divide. Now you have a digital divide. Rural areas don’t have the same tools that non-rural areas do.”
According to data from the FCC, more than 800,000 Pennsylvania lack access to reliable, high-speed internet. More than 65% of those are residents in rural areas.
The issue is not just areas that don’t have access to broadband, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found in a study released in June 2019. The FCC’s broadband maps show that there is availability across the entire state of broadband speed over 25 megabits per-second, the minimum speed at which it’s considered broadband connectivity. The FCC map is based on self-reported information from internet service providers of advertised speeds.
The Center for Rural Pennsylvania research team collected 11 million speed tests across the state and found median speeds in most areas didn’t meet that 25 megabits per-second mark. Connectivity speeds were substantially slower in rural counties.
One idea that came from the state grange’s Farm Show panels was to fund broadband projects through a surcharge on people’s cell phone bills, Campbell said.
The fees would be thrown together into a general fund, and companies or rural electric cooperatives could use the money along with matching funds to expand infrastructure, he said.
“Being a former dairy farmer, back in the ’60s and ’70s, I’m used to having a surcharge on my milk check,” Campbell said.
That idea hasn’t gained much traction, but there are a few bills working their way through the state legislature that the state grange supports.
House Bill 2438 and Senate Bill 1118 would make it easier for rural electric cooperatives to upgrade existing electric lines to provide broadband internet, Phillips said. The house version of the legislation passed the full house and was waiting on second consideration from the senate on June 29.
Senate Bill 835 would establish a $5 million grant program — the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program — to get broadband access in areas currently without it. Companies or cooperatives would have to put up 25% of their own funds. That legislation was referred to the Senate appropriations committee on June 23.
Wolf has long advocated for expanding broadband access. His administration created the Office of Broadband Initiatives in March 2018 and made it responsible for putting together a strategy to get broadband access to every Pennsylvanian by 2022.
The first project through the newly created office was the Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive program.
The program offered $35 million in incentives to private providers bidding on service areas within the state in the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund Phase II project.
Of that, $17 million went to three entities that were awarded CAF II funds: Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, Armstrong Telephone Company and Erie-based Velocity.Net, said Rachel Wrigley, deputy director of communications for Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the department under which the Office of Broadband Initiatives is housed.
Wolf presented a $4.5 billion plan in June 2019 to expand broadband access, fix infrastructure and address blight across the state. The Restore Pennsylvania plan would be funded by borrowing the money and repaying the debt with a severance tax on natural gas drillers.
Even though COVID-19 has derailed many government operations, it also made clear the importance of broadband access with telemedicine, distance learning and online commerce becoming the norm.
“The pandemic has unfortunately served as a reminder to Pennsylvanians just how critical the needs addressed in the governor’s Restore PA plan are, like broadband access, as many individuals and organizations are reevaluating in-person operations and considering online practices from the most rural to populated areas of the state,” Wrigley said.
The legislation hasn’t been brought up for a vote in either chamber.
Actions speak louder
Campbell is skeptical of the Restore Pennsylvania plan. It isn’t clear just how much of that $4.5 billion would go to broadband projects, on top of issues with how the program would be funded — by relying on a waning natural gas industry, he said.
Campbell said he appreciates the work Wolf has done so far, but he wants more. The Office of Broadband Initiatives is nestled under the Department of Community and Economic Development, has no dedicated staff and no funding directed to it from the state budget.
“If you’re going to ask the federal government for money, we think it would be kind of nice to show on our end in Pennsylvania that we’re doing everything we can to make it happen,” Campbell said.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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