Better internet access coming to Pennsylvania counties, with the passage of landmark broadband bill

Western PA News

(WETM) – As internet connectivity has become the essential means of communication for much of the world, especially during the pandemic, many rural areas of Pennsylvania have been left behind.

Lack of internet access is one of the most critical issues in the state. Many parts of the state have a landscape that makes connectivity so challenging, like Tioga County, which rests against the picturesque backdrop of Pennsylvania’s rolling hills,

“Frankly, it is past time that this gets done. Being 21 years into the 21st century, it is a failure on the part of too many people that so many within our Commonwealth lack access to what is now a basic life necessity,” said Pennsylvania House Majority Leader, Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin).

Access to funds has been one of the biggest challenges, according to Tioga County Commissioner, Erick Coolidge.

Now finally, hope is here. Pennsylvania will be receiving $100 million from President Biden’s infrastructure package that will be specifically targeted at improving broadband internet access.

On Monday, Pennsylvania lawmakers with bipartisan support passed legislation that would create a single entity, formally called the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority. House Bill 2071 has set up this organization as a single point of contact that will make decisions on how to implement the plan and disburse the funds to bring broadband across the state.

Counties and areas can apply for grants from this fund. And Coolidge says that Tioga County is ready. “Now we finally see that there are federal dollars…we are prepared to make our case in this region,” he said.

Pennsylvania farms lag national average on internet access.

This would be a big boon for the region. Only 64% of Pennsylvania farms report having internet access, compared with 82% of farms nationally, according to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. Commissioner Coolidge does not want the lack of internet connection to be a drawback of living in his county, anymore.

“I hope that our region, as rural as it is…won’t have to apologize for not having access,” said Coolidge. “For a change, we will have some of the services that are readily available in urban and suburban areas.”

Rep. Clint Owlett (R-Wellsboro) explains that those applying will have to show exactly what they’re going to do.

“It might be microwave towers, it might be fiberoptics… it could be any number of things,” said Owlett. “But the reality is, we’ve crafted it in a way that even the small providers are going..to be able to access this money.”

Pennsylvania can get more money to ensure better access

While $100 million might seem like a lot, the state could have the opportunity to receive, even more, some estimate as much as $500 million.

Biden’s infrastructure package has allocated $42.5 billion the for Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program (BEAD) where every state will be awarded that initial amount of $100 million. The states could then be offered grants if they can come up with clear plans of implementation.

But not every state is getting extra money.

“If they [states] can show they have a plan, and that they need more money, there will be more money available…This bill [H.B. 2071] put us in a position to be able to go after, what some are saying, an additional $400 million,” says Owlett.

Those grants will be prioritized for unserved and underserved areas.

“This is going to be an all-out blitz,” said Owlett. “Every other state is going to be doing the same exact thing, so it’s going to be a race to the table, and this [bill] positions Pennsylvania in a strong way, to hopefully get ahead of the game.”

Internet access brings Democrats and Republicans together

The Federal Communications Commission reported nearly a million Pennsylvanians lack access to reliable high-speed internet access. But, a study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania in 2019 found that the already alarming data by the FCC may have been severely underestimated, in the number of Pennsylvanians who lack a broadband internet connection.

After analyzing connectivity speeds from 11 million Pennsylvania households, the study found that median internet speeds across the state were so low, that they failed to qualify as “broadband connection” based on the FCC’s own criteria. Even more so in rural areas, researchers found that connectivity speeds were “substantially slower.”

Pennsylvania Republicans and Democrats have not agreed on much lately. But, access to broadband has been recognized as critical by both sides.

In a statement, Governor Tom Wolf (D-PA) said he commends the House and Senate “for their efforts to swiftly pass this bill that will help bring high-speed internet to students, businesses, and residents across Pennsylvania.”

The independent authority has been set up for six years. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

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