Pennsylvania's Plan for Affordable Broadband

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, June 10, 2024

Digital Beat

Pennsylvania's Plan for Affordable Broadband

Part of our series on states' plans to ensure affordable services are available on BEAD-supported networks

Through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, established by Congress in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Pennsylvania was allocated over $1.1 billion to deploy or upgrade high-speed Internet networks to ensure that everyone has access to reliable, affordable, high-speed internet service. On May 14, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) approved the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority's initial BEAD plans. The Development Authority can now request access to funding and begin implementation of the BEAD program. The state has one year to submit a Final Proposal that details, among other things, the outcome of the subgrantee selection process and how the state will ensure universal broadband coverage. 

The overarching goal is to deploy broadband networks that reach every American and provide access to reliable, affordable, high-speed internet. Working with NTIA, the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority must ensure that service providers using BEAD funds provide a low-cost option to eligible subscribers and address middle-class affordability. BEAD guidelines prioritize proposals that improve affordability to ensure that networks built using taxpayer dollars are accessible to all Americans.

Pennsylvania's Broadband Challenge

"Where infrastructure does not exist, building it must be a priority. Once infrastructure is available, it needs to be affordable and easily adoptable by Commonwealth residents."—Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority

Pennsylvania is home to many diverse communities, a large number of which are disproportionately impacted by various barriers and deficiencies that prevent the attainment of digital equity for residents.

In 2023, at least 279,000 locations in Pennsylvania did not have access to 25/3 Mbps internet service and an additional 54,048 locations did not have access to 100/20 Mbps broadband. Physical barriers make broadband deployment to unserved and underserved consumers difficult and expensive. For example, Pennsylvania’s mountainous geography poses barriers to construction. This makes the construction of the networks providing service much more complex and expensive as ISPs navigate rugged terrain.

Nearly 12% of Pennsylvanians (roughly 1.5 million people) live under the "federal poverty line." For a family of four, this means earning $30,000 or less annually. These households often struggle to afford basic necessities (food, housing, transportation, health care) and may have little remaining budget for internet service and computers. 

For Pennsylvania to achieve the goals of NTIA's Internet For All initiative, the state will have to overcome substantial infrastructure barriers while still making connectivity affordable. 

Connecting the Commonwealth

To address these barriers, Pennsylvania developed Connecting the Commonwealth: A Five-Year Strategy Toward Internet for All. This plan, created by the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA) through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED), aims to comprehensively assess and resolve the issues regarding broadband access, affordability, and adoption. The Five-Year Plan guides the PBDA as it ventures to bring a robust, affordable, and equitable broadband ecosystem to all. The PBDA’s findings are based on direct engagement with residents, businesses, and industry partners. The priorities identified as necessary to achieve this goal are:

  • Expand infrastructure across the Commonwealth, which comes from identifying areas with the most need and by defining the technical aspects of implementation for services to accurately and equitably build out.
  • Collaborate with and support community anchor institutions (CAIs) to provide digital literacy training and community access to high-speed broadband.
  • Fortify existing programs throughout communities, where residents are informed of affordability programs and available funding is sought, acquired, and administered by government and community organizations.

PBDA also found that even if high-speed internet access is available, some households cannot afford services without government subsidies. Although affordability programs like the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) existed in 2023, many eligible households were not enrolled. This was due to a combination of factors, including the complexity of the application process, households’ concerns with sharing personal information online, and the inherent flexibility in what is affordable for each household.

PBDA recognized that the need for increased awareness of affordability programs and options requires intense marketing strategies. Price transparency is a further obstacle for affordability, as costs vary widely across service providers and in different zip codes, and there is a lack of consistency in the price associated per level of service.  

Pennsylvania's Low-Cost Broadband Service Option

As for many states, Pennsylvania’s plan for ensuring low-income households can afford broadband service relies heavily on the now-expired Affordable Connectivity Program. In Connected and Empowered, Pennsylvania’s digital equity plan, PBDA noted that all BEAD sub-grantees to Pennsylvania’s BEAD grant program were to be required to participate in the ACP (or any successor program). Subscribers that are eligible for any broadband service subsidy must be allowed to apply the subsidy to the proposed service option on a BEAD network in Pennsylvania: 

Requiring internet service providers (ISPs) to participate in ACP to apply for the BEAD program is an excellent step to ensuring that the ACP is widely available for Pennsylvanians, especially in areas that may lack internet service. With the greater availability of ACP, it will be necessary to increase consumer awareness of the program as just over 1.4M of Pennsylvanians are eligible but have yet to enroll in ACP. In addition to increasing ACP participation, encouraging more ISPs to offer low-cost internet plans will help increase adoption rates in the Commonwealth.

Without ACP, BEAD-supported providers must continue to offer an unsubsidized low-cost plan. Low-income consumers will be responsible for paying the full price of those plans without the $30 per month discount the ACP offered. As noted above, this will be hard for low-income households also juggling food, housing, transportation, and health care costs.

Applicants for BEAD support will detail their low-cost plans, with costs equal to or less than $48.60 a month. Pennsylvania arrived at $48.60 because it represents 2% of the maximum eligible annual income for an ACP-eligible household of one, divided by 12. In 2023, ACP’s maximum eligible annual income for a household of one was $29,160. Divided by 12, the monthly income is $2,430. The maximum monthly charge for a low-cost plan is 2% of $2,430, or $48.60. With ACP, Pennsylvania's plan was that low-income households would pay up to $18.60/month for broadband service; now those households will have to pay $48.60/month, if they can. 

The BEAD low-cost plans in Pennsylvania must offer service speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps with low latency. BEAD service providers are prohibited from imposing data caps, surcharges, or usage-based throttling. A BEAD provider's plan must include acceptable-use policies that they offer to home subscribers on all other broadband internet access service plans.

Pennsylvania's Middle-Class Affordability Plans

PBDA has determined “middle-class” households to be those with an income between 201% and 400% of the poverty level. Applying this standard in Pennsylvania, a total of 1,119,667 (36% of rural and 64% of urban) households are considered “middle-class.” Nine percent of Pennsylvania's middle-class households currently lack internet access.

PBDA will require all sub-grantees receiving BEAD funds to offer low-cost, high-speed affordable service options to all middle-class households over the BEAD-funded network. In their grant applications, prospective sub-grantees will be required to include a robust affordability plan, as well as a sustainability plan that ensures affordability is maintained for at least five years following project completion. To enable providers to offer affordable service options, PBDA will strive to eliminate barriers to entry, promote open access to multi-dwelling units, and will encourage alternative technology options. 

PBDA will encourage sub-grantees receiving BEAD funds to adopt the following affordable service option to ensure that BEAD funds are used in a manner that increases the affordability of broadband services for middle-class households. Providers are not required by PBDA or any other state or federal agency to offer specific rates. PBDA says rates should be reflective of the costs to build affordable but sustainable high-speed broadband networks. The affordable service option should meet, at a minimum, the following criteria:  

  • Costs of $643 annually or $54 per month or less, inclusive of all taxes, fees, equipment, and charges billed to the customer.  
  • Offer consistent and reliable download speeds of at least 100 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 20 Mbps.
  • Latency less than or equal to 100 milliseconds.
  • No data caps, surcharges, or usage-based throttling may be applied.
  • The plan must be subject only to the same policies and procedures which subscribers to all other broadband internet access service plans offer to home subscribers.  
  • The affordable service option must be made available to all locations within the sub-grantee’s proposed project area. Sub-grantees will be encouraged to make the option available across its entire service territory.  
  • Sub-grantees will be required to submit a description of their plan to advertise the affordable service option to customers.  

"Affordable Broadband isn’t an Accessory"

Over 739,000 Pennsylvania households lost the ACP subsidy as of June 1. In April 2024, as federal ACP funding dwindled, Pennsylvania state legislators proposed the Affordable Broadband Internet Access Service Act (House Bill 2195). The proposed program would be similar to the ACP in terms of its subsidy amount ($30/month) and eligibility criteria (households with incomes at or below 200% of the Federal poverty level), but, unlike the ACP, it would limit participation to only those households with school-aged children. 

“I think people oftentimes think that, oh, you know, people [are] on the Internet just to surf the web and look up things,” said the bill's lead sponsor, State Rep. Lindsay Powell (D-Allegheny). “But it really is a critical resource." She added, "Affordable broadband isn’t an accessory. It’s a necessity.”

The bill aims to ensure that kids have access to the internet to do homework and attend school when it is online, their parents have access to workforce opportunities, and these families have access to telehealth.

The Affordable Broadband Internet Access Service Act awaits a vote in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. 

Additional Coverage on Pennsylvania's Broadband Priorities

See the latest Pennsylvania broadband news

More in this Series

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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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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