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Broadband companies will have access to tens of millions of dollars in federal aid to build new or expand old internet infrastructure under a bill the Pennsylvania General Assembly unanimously approved this week.
The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Marty Causer, R-Potter, completes years of work by rural lawmakers and advocates to get the state to help their communities get quality, high speed internet.
The bill establishes a state authority, with members of the governor’s administration and the General Assembly on its board.
It will be charged with receiving federal aid for broadband expansion and then distributing it to anyone with the “technical, managerial and financial expertise to design, build and operate high-speed broadband service infrastructure within this Commonwealth.”
Areas that receive the funding must have download speeds of less than 100 megabits per- second, and upload speeds of 20 megabits per-second — a new, high standard championed by lawmakers in Washington D.C.
States are currently flush with broadband funding after Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed, the $1.1 trillion infrastructure plan earlier this fall. The plan includes $65 billion in aid to develop rural broadband, including at least $100 million directly to each state.
The authority will exist for six years, unless renewed by the General Assembly. It will be responsible for distributing money, as well as developing a statewide plan for broadband deployment.
Lawmakers involved in its creation say that the sudden availability of federal money for broadband in the federal infrastructure bill passed earlier this fall helped convince their colleagues to take action.
Without the authority, the state would have likely missed out on the federal investments, state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, a longtime advocate for rural broadband expansion, said.
The effort also was helped along by the ongoing shift to remote work amid the spread of COVID-19, Snyder said.
“Everyone has recognized through the pandemic how important this issue is,” Snyder told the Capital-Star.
In a statement this week, Gov. Tom Wolf commended the Legislature’s swift action on the authority.
“This represents a generational change for many rural communities to close the digital divide, improve equity and cost and bring the opportunities that broadband provides to more homes, schools and businesses,” Wolf said.
More than 800,000 Pennsylvanians lack access to reliable internet service, Wolf’s office said.
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