Gov. Tom Wolf renewed his pitch for a $4.5 billion infrastructure plan on Thursday, when he appeared alongside local lawmakers, educators, and business leaders at the Capitol to highlight the need for universal broadband internet access in Pennsylvania.
It could cost as much as much as $715 million to bring high-speed broadband to every house in the state, according to Wolf’s office.
But as the governor said Thursday, Pennsylvania’s schools, healthcare providers, and businesses could pay dearly if the state continues to neglect its internet infrastructure.
“If we want to be a great, competitive, 21st century commonwealth, we have got to make sure each of our 12.8 million residents have access to [broadband internet],” Wolf said. “We are not going to be in the running if we can’t figure this out.”
The Federal Communications Commission estimated in 2018 that 1 million Pennsylvanians lacked broadband internet access in their homes.
But a study commissioned by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, released this June, suggested the state’s connectivity problem is even worse.
Researchers from Penn State University found broadband speeds fall short of federal connectivity standards in all parts of the state. Internet connections are poor or nonexistent in some rural areas, but many suburban and urban households also lack speedy connections, they found.
Wolf said Thursday that telecommunications companies have been hesitant to install broadband infrastructure, such as fiber optic cables, in sparsely populated parts of the state. If Pennsylvania makes a sweeping investment in broadband infrastructure, Wolf said, the private sector will follow suit.
The state could do that by installing its own fiber optic cables or offering economic incentives to telecommunications companies.
But Wolf declined to dwell on technicalities Thursday, saying that any discussion of strategy is meaningless until the General Assembly appropriates money.
“Whatever we end up doing, whatever and whoever we end up subsidizing, it’s going to take money from the state. And that’s what we’re talking about [today],” Wolf said. He added, “we are going to need a big amount of money to invest to make this happen for Pennsylvania.”
The push to expand broadband internet is part of Wolf’s ambitious Restore PA proposal, a $4.5 billion plan to rebuild Pennsylvania’s infrastructure.
The plan would provide money to fight blight, repair aging roads and bridges, and invest in green energy, among other areas.
Wolf has proposed borrowing money to pay for the projects and paying down the debt by taxing natural gas production. He said on Thursday that Pennsylvania is the only gas-producing state in the country that doesn’t tax gas production by volume. The commonwealth does, however, levy an annual impact fee on individual gas wells.
Wolf’s office estimates the new tax would generate $300 million a year. But it faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, which has declined to pass a shale gas tax every year since Wolf office in 2015.
A version of the Restore PA plan has bipartisan support in the state House, where 99 lawmakers — including 16 Republicans — have signed on as co-sponsors. The bill needs 102 votes to pass the chamber.
In the Senate, half of the chamber’s 50 lawmakers are on board, including four Republicans.
The plan faces opposition from Republicans who say they want to rein in state debt, and from progressive Democrats who say Pennsylvania shouldn’t tie its future to natural gas production.