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SWPA lawmaker’s bill would create new Pa. broadband authority, expand access | Monday Morning Coffee

February 1, 2021 7:10 am

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed so many things about the way we work and live. Perhaps one of the biggest changes is the fact that, nearly a year in, more of us are working and learning from home than ever before. And it could be months — or longer — before we ever get back into the office in a meaningful way.

That paradigm shift has made access to high-speed internet more critical than ever. And if there’s one thing we also know about the pandemic, it’s that not everyone can afford this lifeline to the workplace and the classroom. In fact, 14 percent of households with school-aged children in the United States lack internet access, according to recent data from the National Telecommunications and Information AdministrationThe Observer reported.

That gap is particularly pronounced in urban and rural settings. A study last year by Deutsche Bank concluded that “Black and Hispanic Americans are … experiencing a ‘racial tech gap,’ which could threaten their future ability to gain meaningful employment and grow wealth,” according to Minnesota Public Radio’s Marketplace.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf spent the first two years of his second term trying to close that gap by selling the Republican-controlled General Assembly on his $4.5 billion Restore PA plan, a wide-ranging infrastructure initiative, that included broadband expansion across the commonwealth. Some lawmakers, such as Snyderhave been successful in taking a regional approach. But that doesn’t yield uniform results statewide.

Wolf is expected to pitch a rejiggered version of the Restore PA plan that shifts the focus to workforce development when he delivers a virtual budget address on Tuesday.

Even so, one Democratic lawmaker from southwestern Pennsylvania is picking up the broadband baton from the Wolf administration. Learn more after the jump.

(Image via pxHere.com)

Over the weekend, Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Fayettebegan seeking co-sponsors for a bill that would create a new state authority charged with “[overseeing] and [supporting] the deployment of broadband services throughout the Commonwealth.”

If approved, the new agency would be the main contact point on broadband initiatives and also would be charged with finding and supplying the money to help pay for that expansion, Snyder wrote in a ‘Dear Colleague’ memo.

The largest, single source of such funds is the COVID-19 aid bill that cleared Congress in the waning days of the Trump administration. As Vox reports, it appropriates $7 billion for broadband connectivity and infrastructure.

That tally includes, according to Vox, $3.2 billion for a $50, monthly emergency benefit for low-income households and those households that sustained a significant loss of income last year, as well as a $75 monthly rebate for people who live on tribal lands. It also sets aside $1 billion in grants for tribal broadband programs as well as $300 million for rural broadband grants, and funds toward tele-health, as well as “broadband mapping, and broadband in communities surrounding historically Black colleges and universities,” Vox reported.

As Vox notes, the issue with broadband is both one of access and affordability. Citing Federal Communications Commission data, Vox reported that roughly 21 million Americans don’t have access to reliable broadband, though that actual number could be much higher.

According to data compiled by Reviews.org, the average American pays about $57 a month for their internet connection. But that price-tag can vary wildly by connection type, with a monthly bill topping out at as much as $123 for a satellite connection. Even at $57 a month, that’s still an annual bill of $684, which can be out of reach for too many households.

In 2019, data compiled by Pew Research revealed that half of non-broadband users said they don’t have. connection because it’s too expensive. Further, nearly one in five households earning $30,000 or less aren’t online, Vox reported, citing the Pew data.

The state House could vote as soon as this week on a $912 million COVID-19 relief plan that includes aid for the state’s renters, private schools, and restaurants. It’s not clear if Gov. Tom Wolf will sign the package, which includes a mix of state and federal money, the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported. It does not include broadband assistance or expansion.

In her co-sponsorship memo, Snyder makes specific note of the indispensable role that a reliable internet connection plays for so many Pennsylvanians.

“In today’s world, all Pennsylvanians need affordable access to high-speed broadband internet. Without that access, families and businesses in rural areas and underserved urban areas are going to continue to be left behind and at a disadvantage when teleworking, tele-learning and operating a competitive business,” Snyder wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic is just more boldly demonstrating these inequities. It is time we truly focus on ensuring affordable broadband access is available for everyone no matter where you live.”

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
Cassie Miller
 leads our coverage this morning with this week’s edition of The Numbers Racket, which takes a deep dive on new state Department of Conservation & Natural Resources polling reinforcing the critical role that state parks have played in keeping us both sane and physically fit during the pandemic.

Former Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor, who declined to prosecute Bill Cosby in 2005, is one of two lawyers who will lead ex-President Donald Trump’s defense team at his impeachment trial next week.

All those election season court fights have cost Pennsylvania taxpayers nearly $4 million and counting, Elizabeth Hardison and Stephen Caruso report. Despite the fact that you can’t turn around in the Capitol without tripping over a lawyer, that cash has largely gone to out-of-state and private law firms, Hardison and Caruso report. Also, keep this figure in mind the next time the Legislature cries poverty as it’s driving a stake through the heart of a desperately needed program for the people who need it the most.

On Capitol Hill, Congressional Democrats are putting the focus back on election reformCapital-Star Washington Reporter Ariana Figueroa writes. One cannot help but conclude that Democrats’ definition of election reform and the GOP’s definition will not coincide.

Philadelphia has fallen behind New York City on promulgating economic policies friendly to LGBTQ-owned businesses, our partners at the Philadelphia Gay News report.

On our Commentary Page, opinion regular Dick Polman says it’s long past time to put abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. And Pennsylvania can’t afford to create vaccine haves- and have-nots, opinion regular Ray E. Landis writes. 

En la Estrella-Capital, Los federales tratan de aliviar la acumulación de vacunas mediante la contratación de enfermeras y médicos jubilados. Y la supremacía blanca del patio trasero: Los estudiantes de secundaria de Pa. Central les dió por usar las redes sociales para luchar contra el racismo en el aula.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek)

Elsewhere.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
, tells the Inquirer that the Biden administration should ‘go big or go home.’
Pittsburgh restaurant owners say they’re looking forward to state assistance, but have more pressing concerns, the Post-Gazette reports.
Officials in one central Pennsylvania school district are considering revisions for when students can start kindergarten and first grade, the Sentinel of Carlisle reports.
The FBI has arrested and charged two more Pennsylvania residents in connection with the Capitol riot, one of whom allegedly wanted to ‘shoot Nancy Pelosi in the brain,’ the Morning Call reports.
Health care and related businesses in Luzerne County received the biggest loans from a federal program that pumped more than $742.5 million into protecting work, the Citizens-Voice reports.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day. 

 

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The weekend’s heavy snowfall disrupted COVID-19 testing and vaccination operations in Philadelphia, WHYY-FM reports. 
Jobless Pennsylvanians saw little relief in January, WITF-FM reports.
Mass vaccination sites will open in Pennsylvania in February, GoErie reports.
Washington County’s Tourism Promotion Agency has awarded more than $93,000 in grants to 16 public and private organization, the Observer-Reporter reports.
Stateline.org previews the once-a-decade fight over redistricting that will soon start in state Capitols across the country.
Trust in the media is an issue, but the way the data is presented is critical to understanding the issue, Nathan Gonzales writes for Roll Call.

What Goes On.
The House comes back in at 12 p.m. today. There’s also some committee action on offer.

In the House:
9 a.m., 140MC: House Health Committee
Call of the Chair, 140MC: House Appropriations Committee

In the Senate:
12 p.m., Senate Chamber: 
Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee
Off the Floor: Senate Judiciary Committee

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
Reminding us it’s never too early to start thinking ahead, new Rep. Milou Mackenzie, R-Lehigh, holds a 10 a.m. brunch at the Third Street offices of the House Republican Campaign Committee, across the street from the Capitol. Admission runs $250 to $1,000.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Belated best wishes go out this morning to Emily Walker, 
of Senate Democrats; Anthony D’Agostino, of CBS-21 in Harrisburg; Matt Maisel, of FOX-43 in York, and Janet Pickel, of PennLive, all of whom celebrated on Saturday. Additional belated best wishes go out to Lisa Wardle, of WITF-FM, who celebrated on Sunday. Entirely up-to-date best wishes go out to Capital-Star Lancaster Correspondent Lauren Manelius, who celebrates today. Congratulations all around, friends, for another trip around the sun.

Heavy Rotation.
Here’s a bit of unabashed pop from Fiction Factory to brighten a snowy Monday morning. It’s the extended version of ‘(Feels Like) Heaven.’

Monday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Carolina took all six points from their home stand return after a pandemic-enforced break. The ‘Canes beat Dallas 4-3 in a shoot-out on Sunday night.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.

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