The Lead

New authority meets to tackle broadband expansion across Pennsylvania

By: - February 15, 2022 11:56 am

A man fills out an online application during a job fair hosted by the city of Chicago in July 2012. The fair offered computer access to people who do not have internet access (Scott Olson/Getty Images).

(*This story was updated at 2:14 p.m. on Tuesday 2/15/22 with additional comment)

Pennsylvania’s new bipartisan, bicameral broadband authority met for the first time Tuesday to figure out how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to expand internet access across the commonwealth.

States are currently flush with broadband funding after Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed, the $1.1 trillion infrastructure plan last fall.

The plan includes $65 billion in aid to develop rural broadband. Each state will get at least $100 million, but billions more will be available through applications for federal aid.

To make those applications, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Legislature unanimously approved the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority in Dec. 2021, which Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf quickly signed into law.

“I think everybody, Republican and Democratic, rural and urban, recognizes we need to figure this out,” Wolf told the Capital-Star after the authority’s inaugural gathering.

The Wolf administration had already created an office of broadband initiatives to help manage internet expansion. But the new authority will now have the force of law behind it.

Its board is made up of five of the governor’s cabinet secretaries, four legislators, the chairman of the state Public Utilities Commission and the executive director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency that studies rural issues.

Under the statute, the authority is required to become a single point of contact for all efforts, public and private, to expand internet access in Pennsylvania, and handle all applications for federal broadband expansion funding. It also must create a statewide plan to expand internet access and digital literacy within the next year.

When it’s assigning funding, the authority must all prioritize projects in areas that have internet download speeds of less than 100 megabits per second, and upload speeds of 20 megabits-per-second — new standards championed by lawmakers in Washington D.C. to increase internet access.

According to a 2019 Center for Rural Pennsylvania report using 11 million speed tests from Pennsylvanians, most Pennsylvanians didn’t even have access to high-speed internet under an old federal standard of 25 mPs download and 3 mPs upload. Speeds were also slower in rural counties, the report found.

Internet expansion has been a rare bipartisan bright spot this session. The Legislature also approved a law to smooth the expansion of 5G internet in the commonwealth last summer.

*Wolf was joined later in the day on Tuesday by a number of elected officials and stakeholders who will be impacted by broadband expansion, including state Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, who has championed the issue in the House.

The state’s rural communities deal with substandard broadband coverage every day, Dr. Jason Bottiglieri, the superintendent of schools for the Wyalusing Area School District, which takes in Bradford and Wyoming counties, said in a statement released by Wolf’s office.

“Imagine learning in that environment, imagine working or running a business in that environment, imagine not having access to conduct medical research, or being denied equal access to quality doctors and mental health services that can be delivered via telemedicine. We cannot allow a child’s zip code to dictate their success,” said Bottiglieri, who spoke on behalf of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools.

Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek contributed to this story. 

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.