Rural broadband access has been an issue for years. In fact, more than 800,000 Pennsylvanians did not have broadband connectivity as of June 2019, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
That problem has become increasingly dire because of COVID-19. In addition to more people working from home, students may be forced to learn at home again, just like they were in March, even if they return to school in the fall as so many of us hope they will.
That’s why my colleagues in the House and I unanimously passed House Bill 2438, which would provide broadband services over existing easements and infrastructure. It is currently awaiting a final vote in the Senate.
House Bill 2348 is another bill we passed unanimously that is before the Senate. This legislation would create the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Grant program and re-appropriate an existing tax credit of $5 million to the fund annually. Non-governmental entities, including rural electric cooperatives and local development districts, would be eligible for funding.
However, there’s another option to address Pennsylvania’s broadband access challenges, one that could fix the problem much more quickly and completely.
Pennsylvania received $104 million in federal funding to improve internet connectivity for K-12 and college students via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, which was created by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Gov. Tom Wolf has full authority over the funding and has awarded $3 million to preschool programs and $28 million to colleges and universities. Any or all of the remaining $73 million could be used to address rural broadband access, but Wolf’s administration has not indicated how or when the money will be spent.
Using some of that funding to address broadband access would have more of an impact than ever, not only because students are schooling at home in much higher numbers, but also because so many of their parents are working from home to earn a living. The time to invest in rural broadband access is now.
This article was published in the Venango Chamber’s September 2020 VenangoWorks! Newsletter.