Broadband is Key to Pennsylvania's Future
Friday, April 14, 2023
Broadband is Key to Pennsylvania's Future
You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.
Round-Up for the Week of April 10-14, 2023
"Broadband is as essential today as electricity and water. But there is a digital divide in Pennsylvania."—Former-Governor Tom Wolf (D-PA)
Pennsylvania has vast swaths of mountainous terrain, and houses can be miles apart in rural areas. Because of this, laying new fiber cables is difficult, expensive, and unappealing to broadband providers. But the digital divide is not just a rural issue. Access and affordability are also barriers in cities like Philadelphia where poverty hinders broadband adoption.
Former-Governor Tom Wolf (D-PA) repeatedly called for statewide infrastructure investment including providing funding to completely bridge the digital divide in every community in Pennsylvania. His Restore PA proposal called for grants to support installation of infrastructure to bring high-speed internet to every corner of the commonwealth, supporting every phase of the process from feasibility testing to connection.
Then-Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) said his party viewed spending money on infrastructure, rural broadband, stormwater management, and brownfield cleanup are worthy projects. But he said, when it comes to broadband, “we do take issue with subsidizing multi-billion-dollar corporations to deploy technology using money from taxpayers.”
The years-long debate slowed progress in the Keystone State, but in September 2022, Gov. Wolf announced that $500 million from the American Rescue Plan Act will go to local governments to invest in infrastructure, including broadband, accelerating the Commonwealth's efforts to close the digital divide. Up to $1 billion of federal funding can potentially be spent on broadband expansion. However, a 2004 law restricts local governments from building their own broadband networks.
During the 2022 gubernatorial election, eventual winner and former-Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D-PA) said he would prioritize expanding quality and affordable access to broadband in rural regions of the state by supporting the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, and establishing comprehensive subsidies for low-income households with high internet prices. [Shapiro was part of a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general who in 2017 opposed a petition from the broadband industry to stop states from enforcing false advertising laws on internet speeds.]
Pennsylvania's Digital Divide
In 2022, the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development relied on Federal Communications Commission data from 2019 to estimate that 640,000 to 800,000 (approximately five percent of Pennsylvanians) were “unserved,” lacking access to 25/3 Mbps broadband. But the Commonwealth understood that "accessibility does not equate to subscribership" and also relied on sources that demonstrated that at least 2.6 million Pennsylvania residents in 1.3 million households (26% of the state's total households)—including 25% of Latino and 35% of Black American Households—either did not have access to or had not adopted high-speed broadband or may lack the skills to effectively use it.
The Commonwealth concluded that a number of factors contributed to Pennsylvania's digital divide:
- Infrastructure Availability: Due to a lack of available infrastructure, at least 250,000 locations did not have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband service, and an additional 140,000 locations did not have access to 100/20 Mbps broadband, according to CostQuest.
- Affordability: Prior to the establishment of the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), approximately 537,500 households (9.7%) did not have access to a wired low-cost home high-speed broadband subscription.
- Devices: There were an estimated 1.6 million households in the Commonwealth (31.2%) without a computer and smartphone.
- Digital Literacy: As many as 1.2 million (14.6%) adults may have lacked the digital literacy required to begin taking advantage of critical digital services.
Pennsylvania's Broadband Plan
“This plan will ensure consistent, affordable, quality statewide broadband to keep children learning, businesses growing, and opportunities abounding for all Pennsylvanians.”—Former-Governor Tom Wolf (D-PA)
The Department of Community & Economic Development's 2022 Statewide Broadband Plan identified four core challenges facing Pennsylvanians’ ability to access or adopt broadband. The plan offered goals and action steps to address each challenge.
I. Broadband Service Infrastructure and Availability
To improve broadband service infrastructure and availability, the Commonwealth must:
1. Rely on and maintain current and accurate data on unserved and underserved populations.
- Ensure grants require geo-information and that the state has the capacity to accept applications which include this information.
- Conduct a gap analysis to identify unserved/underserved populations using special data analysis.
- Identify and verify eligible high-speed broadband infrastructure project areas.
2. Reduce obstacles to broadband deployment.
- Facilitate a comprehensive review of lease and attachment fee structures, permitting issues and other reported challenges to broadband deployment.
- Consider the creation of a “Broadband Ready” program for local units of government.
3. Support sustainable, resilient, and secure operations and networks.
- Apply industry best practices to ensure security of data and infrastructure.
- Consider continuity of operations planning for environmental events.
4. Support and maintain a skilled workforce.
- Evaluate the current broadband deployment labor market in the commonwealth to assess the level of employment, wages, and obstacles to hiring and retention of a diverse workforce.
- Identify gaps in broadband infrastructure deployment skills (and relevant job codes) that could inhibit the pace of deployment of broadband infrastructure across the state, while simultaneously identifying community colleges, training institutes, and veterans training programs that can provide training and curriculum to address skill gaps.
- Present to providers and other broadband-related employers’ solutions to workforce issues that are adaptable and scalable by different geographic areas and for various broadband technologies.
- Identify employer best practices in compensation and training that result in recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce, including approaches such as apprenticeship and wraparound services (childcare, transportation).
- Recommend how to attract more skilled professionals to join the broadband infrastructure deployment workforce, including by mapping the presence of underemployed workers in occupations adjacent to broadband who could more easily be trained as broadband technicians, engineers, or other technical roles.
- Partner with and educate stakeholders on state and federal funding opportunities that benefit training and workforce development opportunities related to broadband and skills involved with infrastructure deployment, including use of federal funds for workforce training and development.
- Consult with industry and worker representatives, including labor unions, on the design of the Authority’s grant application criteria to incorporate fair labor practices as one of the three primary evaluation factors for subgrantees.
- Encourage existing employers to develop a curriculum that would be presented to the Pennsylvania Apprenticeship & Training Council to be considered for recognition as a sanctioned apprenticeship program.
5. Ensure minimal to no negative impact to natural resources or communities.
- Identify assets already in place.
- Leverage existing infrastructure and providers to facilitate broadband deployments.
- Institute a dig-once policy requiring coordination of infrastructure projects.
6. Promote or adopt mitigation strategies to alleviate supply chain challenges.
II. Device and Technology Access
To improve access to devices and technology that will increase statewide adoption, the Commonwealth must:
1. Prioritize device funding according to need and return on investment.
- Identify and leverage additional funding partners to provide devices.
- Investigate ability to link funding for infrastructure build to leverage existing device programs.
- Determine eligibility for device assistance.
2. Ensure that secure devices are made available and affordable.
- Continue to leverage anchor institutions to provide rapid community broadband service.
- Investigate the use of refurbished devices from unused surplus sources.
III. Digital Equity and Affordability
To address challenges with Digital Equity and Affordability, the Commonwealth must:
1. Ensure that multiple affordable service options are available.
- Collect and disseminate data on current service options and rates.
- Clearly define affordability looking at a variety of factors.
2. Ensure that affordable options are sustainable.
- Leverage private sector funding.
- Create a sustainability model/long-term plan for when federal funding is no longer available.
- Incentivize regional collaboration and aggregation of demand.
3. Ensure transparency.
- Understand full costs including short-term, long-term, and ongoing usage.
- Define and clearly communicate affordability standards.
IV. Digital Literacy and Technical Support
To address challenges with Digital Literacy and Technical Support, the Commonwealth must:
1. Provide training so every person can meet foundational digital literacy skills.
- Identify and support communities that have the least access to digital skills training.
- Differentiate between basic computer and mobile skills.
- Ensure that devices are accessible and usable for all individuals.
2. Develop a digital literacy plan
- Align digital literacy efforts with the build-out of broadband infrastructure.
- Develop performance measures and consistent data collection.
- Continuously engage employers, local workforce boards, and educational institutions to understand the evolving roles and uses of technology in the workplace.
3. Develop a technical support network.
- Identify and engage anchor institutions to provide foundational digital literacy skills training or connect people to training opportunities.
- Develop a comprehensive digital skills resource map.
- Increase individualized technical assistance and coaching, including accessibility needs.
- Develop an ecosystem of digital navigators, to help people connect with digital skills as a core component of the digital divide.
- Compile and communicate resources on data security and safe online practices.
The Legislative Task Force on High-Speed Broadband Services and the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority
In 2019, the Pennsylvania General Assembly created a legislative task force on high-speed broadband services, and directed the Joint State Government Commission to conduct a study on the delivery of high-speed broadband services in unserved and underserved areas of the Commonwealth. The commission was further directed to establish an advisory committee to assist in its study. The advisory committee included representatives from Commonwealth agencies with an interest in broadband delivery, as well as internet service providers, and related cable, wireless, and other technology industries and associations.
In 2020 and 2021, the advisory committee recommended that a single statewide authority be created to encourage and support broadband expansion and deployment: the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority. In December 2021, Gov. Wolf signed House Bill 20-71 into law, establishing the authority to be responsible for creating a statewide plan and managing millions of dollars coming to the state from the federal government for broadband investment.
The authority serves as a single point of contact for parties interested in developing broadband or having broadband developed, helping to minimize duplication and maximize the use of existing infrastructure. The authority is also charged with identifying access to funding sources and helping coordinate joint efforts for broadband buildout.
Pennsylvania's Broadband Programs
Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program
In December 2020, Gov. Wolf signed into law legislation establishing the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program (UHSB). The Commonwealth Financing Authority administers the program and provides grants to eligible applicants who can operate broadband services through wireline or fixed wireless technology.
UHSB provides grants to deploy middle-mile and last-mile high-speed broadband infrastructure to unserved areas in Pennsylvania. An unserved area is defined as a designated geographic area in which households or businesses do not have access to at least 25 megabits per second downstream speeds and 3 megabits per second upstream speeds. Funds may be used for acquisition, construction, equipment, and site preparation costs associated with the deployment of middle-mile and last-mile high-speed broadband infrastructure.
Any nongovernmental entity with the technical, managerial, and financial expertise to design, build and operate a high-speed broadband service infrastructure within Pennsylvania.
The maximum grant amount of any Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program project cannot exceed $1 million or 75% of the total project costs, whichever is less.
Broadband Infrastructure Program
Pennsylvania's Broadband Infrastructure Program (BIP) is funded pursuant to the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund (Capital Projects Fund) established under the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. BIP is a $200 million competitive grant program which will target locations that do not currently have access to 25/3 Mbps reliable service. The program will fund extensions of existing last-mile cable modem and fiber-to-the-premise broadband networks, and large-scale regional projects that can transform broadband availability by serving large numbers of eligible addresses.
Any business, not-for-profit organization, municipality, or economic development organization with the technical, managerial, and financial expertise to design, build, and operate high-speed broadband service infrastructure within the Commonwealth is eligible to apply. Regional consortia of local governments may participate. Additionally, Pennsylvania's Department of Community & Economic Development will consider covered partnerships consisting of one or more of the above entities and a provider of internet service.
The program prioritizes projects that involve broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, cooperatives, and those with commitments to serving entire communities.
The minimum grant amount for any project is $500,000. The maximum grant amount cannot exceed $10 million.
On April 10, 2023, the U.S. Treasury approved Pennsylvania's plan to use $200 million of the Commonwealth's Capital Projects Fund allocation to connect approximately 44,000 homes and businesses to affordable, high-speed internet. The plan approved by Treasury represents 72% of the state’s total allocation under the Capital Projects Fund program. Pennsylvania has submitted plans for the remainder of its Capital Project Funds and the applications are currently under review by Treasury.
The program will fund two types of broadband infrastructure projects: large-scale regional projects and line extensions. Eligible large-scale regional projects will provide reliable broadband to broad across the Commonwealth, while eligible line extension projects will extend existing last-mile networks to areas that lack adequate internet service.
Supported infrastructure will be designed to provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical to households and businesses upon project completion. Network operators will participate in the FCC's Affordable Connectivity Program which provides a $30/month subsidy for broadband service for eligible low-income households.
Guidelines for the Pennsylvania Broadband Infrastructure Program were adopted on April 5; the application process for this program will open on May 10, 2023.
Additional Federal Funding for Pennsylvania
Broadband Infrastructure Program
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) awarded Huntingdon County nearly $22.5 million for the Rural Broadband Infrastructure Expansion in the Alleghenies project. Working with Alleghenies Broadband, Upward Broadband, and Crowsnest Broadband, Huntingdon County will deploy last mile fixed wireless service to Huntingdon, Bedford, Fulton, Mifflin, Juniata, and Franklin counties in the Southern Alleghenies region of Pennsylvania. The project includes the construction of new infrastructure to support an expansion of fixed wireless service to unserved and underserved residents and businesses. All proposed census blocks will have access to a minimum of 25/3 Mbps services (i.e., qualifying broadband service). Every household in the proposed service area will have access to 25/3 Mbps service.
In total, the project will result in the construction of 30 new towers and equipment fit-ups to 16 existing tower sites to deliver fixed wireless technology to 7,261 unserved households at speeds of 10/2 Mbps to 150/45 Mbps. By county, the project includes the construction of 10 new towers and 4 equipment fit-ups in Bedford County, 9 new towers and 9 equipment fit-ups in Huntingdon County, 8 new towers and 3 equipment fit-ups in Fulton County, and 3 new towers in Mifflin, Juniata, and Franklin Counties.
The unserved populations in the predominantly rural areas served by this project will receive access to broadband service. By county, the project will serve 57.9% of the total unserved population in Bedford County, 63.6% in Huntingdon County, 73.8% in Fulton County, and 73.9% in Mifflin County.
Crowsnest will provide broadband service from 12/10 Mbps at $54/month to 150/45 Mbps at $169/month to residential customers. Upward Broadband will provide broadband service from 10/12 Mbps at $49.95/month to 100/20 Mbps at $299.95/month to residential customers.
Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program
Three institutions in Pennsylvania won Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program awards from NTIA.
Lincoln University in southern Chester County received nearly $3 million to 1) upgrade the broadband and IT capacity to provide high-speed connectivity in critical areas of the campus and 2) create a teaching and learning academy to promote a new and innovative digital education campus culture with pragmatic and state-of-the-art professional developmental opportunities for Lincoln University’s faculty, staff, and students. The project has two main goals: build and enhance an effective broadband and IT capacity; and provide broadband education, awareness, training, access, equipment, and support for students and other university stakeholders.
Community College of Philadelphia received nearly $3 million to expand access to technology equipment, services, and trainings to provide sustainable digital equity to the communities in and around the school. The program will expand access to needed technology devices (desktops/laptops), increase access to internet connectivity (wireless and private LTE broadband), and implement digital literacy education (community digital literacy training and on-campus workforce development training courses).
Eastern University in St. Davids received just over $2 million to leverage educational, institutional, and relational assets in the area and deepen neighborhood-level trust to forge a digital opportunity community in the heart of North Philadelphia by resourcing, educating, equipping, and empowering Latinos and other low-income individuals to utilize digital tools to accomplish practical workforce, education, and health-related goals.
BEAD and Digital Equity Funding
On December 8, 2022, NTIA awarded Pennsylvania over $6.6 million in funding to plan for the deployment and adoption of affordable, equitable, and reliable high-speed Internet service throughout the state. “Pennsylvania’s lack of affordable, accessible broadband is one of the biggest challenges holding our economy back,” said Gov. Wolf. “This $6.6 million is the beginning of a generational change waiting for Pennsylvanians. With guidance from the Pennsylvania Broadband Authority, distribution will be carefully targeted for guaranteed progress.”
The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, provides states will support to expand high-speed internet access by funding planning, infrastructure deployment and adoption programs. Pennsylvania received $5 million to fund various activities including:
- Identification of unserved and underserved locations in the Commonwealth.
- Capacity building of the broadband office;
- Development of a 5-year action plan identifying Pennsylvania’s high-speed Internet access, affordability, equity, and adoption needs;
- Assessment of the barriers residents face hampering their ability to access reliable Internet service.
Pennsylvania's 5-year action plan is due in early September 2023.
The Digital Equity Act, a part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, established the State Digital Equity Planning Grant program. Pennsylvania received over $1.6 million to fund various activities including:
- Development of a digital equity plan;
- Building staff capacity for the Pennsylvania Broadband Office;
- Engaging with community members and stakeholders on equity, including a consultant-led needs assessment and inventory of assets.
Pennsylvania's digital equity plan is due in early December 2023.
- Treasury Department Announces Approval of Federal Funding to Connect 127,000 California Homes and Businesses (Treasury)
- Sens Rosen and Thune Introduce Accurate Map for Broadband Investment Act
- After federal investment, supply chain jams and labor shortages still hinder tribal broadband access (Marketplace)
- Building Strong Partnerships to Advance Digital Equity for Learners (Department of Education)
- Who’s Afraid of Disparate Impact? (The Markup)
- FCC Announces Staff for Office of International Affairs & Space Bureau
- States Seek to Fund Broadband Upgrades in Affordable Rental Housing (Pew Charitable Trusts)
ICYMI from Benton
- Delaware Converting Broadband Deserts
- Additional State Profiles
- 50 Ways the American Rescue Plan Act is Improving Internet Connectivity
Apr 19—2023 BEAD Success Summit (Telecommunications Industry Association)
Apr 19—Colorado Broadband Summit (Colorado Broadband Office)
Apr 19—Breaking Barriers: Streamlining Permitting to Expedite Broadband Deployment (House Commerce Committee)
Apr 20—Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting
May 1-4—Broadband Communities Summit 2023
May 22—Indigenous Connectivity Summit 2023 (Connect Humanity)
June 5—RightsCon Costa Rica (AccessNow)
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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