Roadmap aims to guide broadband expansion in southwestern Pennsylvania

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Funding for broadband expansion has ballooned in the past few years, thanks to billions of dollars funneling from the federal infrastructure bill, some pandemic relief programs and state and local programs.

Pennsylvania is among other states moving towards better broadband access, with a new broadband development authority designed to direct federal funds, and the launch of local projects, like a recently announced $20 million effort in Beaver County.

To help guide broadband expansion efforts in southwestern Pennsylvania, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and partners like Carnegie Mellon University and Allies for Children released a Connectivity Roadmap April 25, focusing on 10 Pennsylvania counties and the city of Pittsburgh.

The roadmap includes tools for prioritizing projects and goals and strategies for the region. It also provides a look at the region’s current broadband situation.

“During this project, we had the opportunity to meet with residents through community conversations across the region to incorporate the real challenges faced in daily lives as part of the roadmap solution,” said Jamie Baxter, executive director at Allies for Children, in an April 25 press release. “Many of the personal stories we heard reinforced the mission of this initiative — that the internet is essential for our communities to connect and learn, it’s expensive and unreliable for many residents, and rural communities feel left behind.”

Current situation

The commission, which focuses on metropolitan planning in the region it covers, started to see broadband as a major need a few years before the pandemic.

“The issue of broadband really came to light in 2018 and 2019 when we were developing the region’s long-range transportation and development plan,” said Andy Waple, deputy executive director for the commission, in an April 25 webinar about the roadmap.

So, about a year ago, the commission and its partners started working on a plan for improving the region’s connectivity.

To develop the roadmap, they looked at internet speed test data from more than 3,400 respondents and held five virtual workshops, 17 in-person community meetings and more than 25 phone calls with industry leaders, internet service providers and county planning directors.

About 63% of survey respondents said their households would benefit from better internet service. Things like the community meetings helped validate survey and speed test results, and provided context for a more complete view of the region.

Unserved and underserved areas the roadmap identified included 36,000 households, 15,000 businesses and more than 500 community anchor institutions. The unserved and underserved areas are mainly rural.

But affordability is another piece of the puzzle, and one that came up more often in urban areas. More than 87% of internet customers paid more than $75 per month for their service. Socioeconomic factors, like income and digital literacy, play a major part in who has access. In some cases, issues with infrastructure and socioeconomic challenges overlap.

“I think the underlying issue is that there’s no requirement for transparency in either of these indicators,” said Karen Lightman, executive director of Metro21: Smart Cities Institute at Carnegie Mellon.

The Federal Communications Commission’s maps have relied on self-reported data from internet service provides at the census block level, which has often resulted in overstating access, and providers are also not required to be transparent about how much they charge for their service.

Roadmap

Waple added the groups wanted to make sure the roadmap’s recommendations help serve vulnerable populations in the region equally. The 12 goals the roadmap identifies are grouped under five categories, including policy, infrastructure, network, digital equity and affordability.

The commission and its partners originally planned to identify a long list of specific projects that could benefit the region. But since policy and technology have been changing quickly, they worried projects they suggest now could be obsolete by the time funding is secured. So instead, they came up with tools for evaluating possible projects, and 14 example projects.

These include a decision-making tool that suggests specific solutions depending on whether an area struggles with a lack of infrastructure, affordability or digital literacy, ways of measuring how effective a project is — and factors to consider in prioritizing projects, like the cost per user, how affordable service will be once it exists, how much funding is needed for a project and more.

Most of the example projects recommend routes to deploy more fixed broadband networks in unserved areas — for example, from the Beaver County line to Interstate 376 via U.S. 30 and State Route 576, in Allegheny County. The roadmap also gives an overview of the funding and types of funding currently available for broadband.

Going forward

The commission and its partners are hoping the roadmap will help local leaders develop and prioritize projects and programs to improve connectivity in the region. They are planning to work with county commissioners and other local leaders to keep developing regional policies around broadband.

“A lot of the counties are doing a great job on their own. You know, we don’t want to stand in their way when they’re … applying for funding and developing projects,” Waple said. “We want to be a resource to our counties and our members and the region.”

They are also planning a regional marketing campaign to promote the benefits of broadband, and highlight programs that can help with affordability challenges.

To see the full roadmap and other resources, visit spcregion.org/connected.

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