Experts: Pennsylvania Failed to Identify Thousands of Internet Underserved Areas – Pennsylvania Capital-Star

By Harrison Cann

Along the New York state line in rural Potter County, the Commonwealth’s fifth least populated county, it can take over an hour to drive to the nearest department store or mall. If residents need something that isn’t at their local Dollar General, they are likely to turn to online marketplaces to deliver items rather than going even further afield to find them a clear example of why the movement to classify access to The Internet as a utility continues to gain strength.

Michele Moore, executive director of Potter County Education Council, told City & State that as access to broadband increases in the region, it has become an increasingly important resource for residents of all ages.

The (older) generations have had to learn along the way, whether they did it voluntarily or were dragged along because of how things are now, Moore told City & State. But I think it’s because technology has become so ingrained in our daily lives.

Moore partners with the Area Agency on Aging and Tri-Co Connections, an Internet service provider, in organizing the Seniors 2 Seniors program, which pairs seniors with high school students to help them learn computer and technology skills.

Seniors 2 Seniors, now operating in Tioga County and looking to expand into more communities, shows the importance of fair and affordable real-time Internet connectivity.

Before Tri-Co Connections came along and built broadband Internet, we were a digital access wasteland up here, Moore said. The companies that were here either didn’t offer high-speed internet, or if they did, they were ridiculously priced to the point where people couldn’t afford it.

(Image via the Center for Rural Pennsylvania/City & State Pa.)

Potter County is far from the only part of the state struggling to get reliable high-speed Internet, and the pressure to provide that access is only mounting on state officials.

While the Commonwealth is set to receive more than $1 billion from two federal funding sources specifically earmarked for broadband expansion, it is not yet clear how that money will be spent to make real progress and whether the Broadband Development Authority, l ‘state entity created to deal with the problem, also knows the true extent of the digital divide of states.

Commonwealth Connectivity

Fast and easy Internet access continues to be unattainable for too many Pennsylvanians, a disadvantage dramatically displayed during the pandemic-fueled migration of daily life online.

Everyone went to work, school, church, the doctor, and kept in touch with friends and family from home, Todd Eachus, president of the Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania, told City & State. Those without broadband are left behind.

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According to the Federal Communications Commission, an unserviced area is an area or address that does not have access to broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second for downloads and three megabits for uploads. Underserved areas meet those speed thresholds, but still have speeds below 100Mbps for downloads and 20Mbps for uploads. Initial estimates from the latest National Broadband Map show that the Commonwealth has nearly 300,000 unserviced areas which represents approximately 6% of all registered service areas.

Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications expert at Penn State University, has expressed serious concerns about the lack of Internet access in many regions of the state, as well as the inconsistencies of broadband development authorities in helping collect access data accurate and assist counties.

One of the big indicators of economic collapse is the lack of broadband, which is an existential threat to a growing number of different constituencies and communities, Meinrath said.

The Development Authority

The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority was established through Act 96 of 2021 to manage federal funding for infrastructure investments and the Jobs Act entering the state. Its plan to expand broadband access across the Commonwealth focuses on improving four key areas: infrastructure and availability of broadband services; digital equity and convenience; access to devices and technologies; and digital literacy and technical support.

Two major federal funding streams are opening up to help states deliver universal broadband connectivity and narrow the digital divide. The first, the Capital Projects Fund, managed by the US Treasury, is contributing $200 million to jobs, education and public health projects in the state. The second, the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, has a $42.45 billion kitty to distribute based on the number of households without access in each state.

State Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill, a leading voice for broadband expansion and secretary of the Broadband Development Authority, said accurate maps are critical to ensuring the state identifies unserved areas and receives its fair share of federal funds.

Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill speaks at a news conference to remind Pennsylvanians of the crucial role they play in ensuring their information is correct in the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) new broadband access map at the Police Department Substation County Regional Park in Spring Grove on Monday, December 12, 2022 (Commonwealth Media Services).
Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill speaks at a news conference to remind Pennsylvanians of the crucial role they play in ensuring their information is correct in the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) new broadband access map at the Police Department Substation County Regional Park in Spring Grove on Monday, December 12, 2022 (Commonwealth Media Services).

Our deployment will be only as good as our mapping, he told City & State. If that map isn’t accurate, we could potentially allocate funds to provide broadband in places that already have it and skip areas that don’t and that would be a failure.

The Broadband Development Authority contracted with Penn State Extension late last year to develop and update state broadband maps and assist with the FCC challenge process. Several counties have also conducted their own surveys and issued challenges to the FCC, while others have hired consultants to help them carry out their challenges.

Our deployment will only be as good as our mapping. If that map isn’t accurate, we could potentially allocate funds to provide broadband in places that already have it and skip areas that don’t and that would be a failure.

State Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York.

Andy Waple, deputy executive director of the programs division of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commissions and a leader in strategic planning for the region, said he was given just two months to review maps and identify unserved areas. The counties were in a mad rush to challenge the FCC maps before the January deadline.

We need to make sure we involve a lot of different people in the process and meet with community groups and nonprofits and really get local, Waple told City & State. It comes back to the fact that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

(Getty Images)

County complications

The number of households without access to the Commonwealth will ultimately determine how much the state receives from the BEAD program, but some experts believe the Broadband Development Authority has lost identification of hundreds, if not thousands, of homes and then millions in federal funding. .

We created a political beast as opposed to what was originally conceptualized, which was a broadband authority led by industry experts, Meinrath said. This will bite our ass.

The billions from BEAD programs will be divided equally to ensure that states with greater accessibility needs receive more funding. Estimates show that every unserviced home added to a state map could increase the funding it receives anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000, according to Penn State.

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Meinrath said Penn State has found more than 600,000 potential locations that need to be checked to see if they lack access and should be included in the map. He added that even with a conservative estimate of about 100,000 additional unserved locations, the state would still lose more than another half-billion dollars.

In April, the Broadband Development Authority announced approval of grant guidelines for the $200 million from the Capital Projects Fund. Distributed through the Pennsylvania Broadband Infrastructure Program, the American Rescue Plan’s $200 million funding is intended to expand high-speed Internet access to more than 44,000 homes and businesses across the Commonwealth. The grant application window opened on May 10 and closes on July 10. The authority expects to award the grants later this year.

One stipulation with Capital Project Fund grant applications, however, is that applicants must commit to investing a minimum amount of capital to fund a proposed project. Grant guidelines released in April set that figure at a 25% match, meaning local governments would be prepared to pay a portion of any federal or state funding they receive.

The authority is required to have some form of matched grant, but Meinrath argued that the 25% will only put the rural areas the funding is intended to further serve in a hole.

Eligibility criteria are made more difficult for counties. They have to pay tens of millions of dollars for a minimum 25% match to a $200 billion program, Meinrath said. The federal grant program does not have a required match. State broadband authority requests feedback. This is just bad policy.

The state Department of Community and Economic Development, the agency under which the broadband authority is held, has not responded to repeated requests for comment regarding the grant guidelines at the time of publication.

The requirements for local governments to receive the first round of more flexible federal funding, combined with the potential for thousands of unserved areas not to be identified in the second round of funding, could mean that many homes and businesses could be left paying more than they expected or fail cracks altogether.

Harrison Cann is a reporter for City & State Pa., where this story first appeared.

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