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Pennsylvania Internet Expansion Initiative Could Cost $1B

Gov. Tom Wolf wants Restore Pennsylvania to get $4.5 billion over four years for state upgrades, borrowed against a natural gas severance tax. It’s a proposal the Republican-controlled Legislature has rejected since 2015.

(TNS) —  Gov. Tom Wolf's Restore Pennsylvania initiative, a proposal that promises, among other things, better roads, more jobs, and new and improved parks, also includes policies aimed at closing the digital divide.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania released a report this month that said its tests of Internet connections found that "there were zero counties in the state where at least 50% of residents received adequate broadband connectivity, as defined by the (Federal Communications Commission)."

FCC data, based on reports by the companies providing Internet connections, show 100% of Pennsylvania has connections at speeds meeting the federal standard of 25 megabits per second for download and 3 megabits per second for upload.

While stopping short of saying the governor adopts its conclusions fully, Sheri Collins, acting director of the Governor's Office of Broadband Initiatives, said last week that the Center for Rural Pennsylvania's report provides evidence "that there is a need for further funding to address" gaps in connectivity.

So, is her area at the top of the list of priorities under the governor's $4.5 billion Restore Pennsylvania initiative?

Collins wouldn't go that far but she said that "the broadband issue is front and center because without broadband infrastructure, we're not going to move forward as a commonwealth from a competitiveness standpoint."

Regarding one issue on the business front, Collins said she spoke to a small business owner in a rural area who had to handle issues requiring Internet access at 3 a.m. to ensure the connection would last long enough to get the work done.

She said an emergency medical technician in Adams County told her getting instructions from a hospital about a patient's treatment sometimes required driving down the road to escape a dead zone.

And farmers told her Internet access can be vital to filling urgent equipment needs.

She also mentioned schools in rural areas, where students sometimes lack connections at home that are fast enough to complete assignments.

"Broadband," Collins said, "touches everything we do."

Asked how much getting Pennsylvania fully connected will cost, Collins said it could be close to $1 billion in public funds.

Physical infrastructure for broadband is both the most expensive and the most reliable option for connecting the state fully, Collins said. The downsides of wireless connections include interference from bad weather and trees, and data caps on satellite access.

A big barrier to installing fiber optic cable and other physical infrastructure in rural areas is the high cost of investments in materials and labor versus a low return to companies delivering it to a small set of customers. Wolf's plan includes building connections in such places, referred to as middle or last mile connections — covering the gaps in the physical infrastructure needed to connect rural areas to cables providing Internet access.

There are two obvious limitations on Restore Pennsylvania's broadband initiative: the initiative's proposed source of funding is uncertain to arrive; and Collins' $1 billion estimate of the cost of broadband connectivity is nearly a quarter of the total for the initiative overall, which includes six other areas.

Wolf wants Restore Pennsylvania to get $4.5 billion over four years, borrowed against a severance tax on natural gas — a proposal the Republican-controlled Legislature has rejected each year since Wolf became governor in 2015.

Collins urged lawmakers to reconsider their opposition to the tax.

"This is a human issue," she said of getting all Pennsylvanians to a level of broadband connectivity many see as a necessity in the 21st century. "This is not a Republican or Democratic issue."

Collins said delivering broadband connectivity to rural Pennsylvania will require coordination between government, industry and communities. And given limited funds, she said she would seek to focus on areas most severely lagging behind.

Elizabeth Stelle, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, expressed three concerns with the governor's broadband connectivity plan.

"Even if this is worth doing, we shouldn't be borrowing more money to do it," she said. "And we certainly shouldn't be adding new taxes to do it."

On debt, Stelle cited the Commonwealth Foundation's $9,119 per Pennsylvanian calculation of red ink, a number that includes all bonds outstanding from the state, state agencies and authorities, school districts and municipalities. A calculation of Pennsylvania's long-term debt by Eileen Norcross, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center, put the figure at $3,109 per capita.

Stelle's third concern was the governor's plan's reliance on public investment in physical infrastructure — something many conservatives believe could be avoided if the federal government loosened up the reins on areas such as " TV white spaces," which are unused UHF channels some see as an effective way to wirelessly connect rural areas.

Restore Pennsylvania

The initiative aims at improving infrastructure across the state in the following seven areas.

Flooding: Help towns and cities prepare for flooding and severe weather and assist Pennsylvanians who suffer losses that are not compensated by the federal government.

Broadband: Provide funding to completely bridge the digital divide in every community in Pennsylvania.

Blight: Increase resources to address an estimated 300,000 blighted structures in rural and urban communities by providing financial resources at the local level to establish land banks and acquire and demolish blighted buildings to create new development opportunities or provide new green space.

Contaminants: Provide funding to address contaminant remediation and help brownfield clean-up throughout the commonwealth.

Green infrastructure: Significant new funding for infrastructure and maintenance in state parks; creation, and revitalization of new local parks; funding best management practices to improve local water quality; and funding for new hiking, biking, and ATV trail projects.

Transportation: Funding for local road and bridge upgrades, for new flexible funding options for businesses that need local infrastructure upgrades to enable development and multimodal and large-scale capital projects for transit.

Business: Funding for infrastructure to help build manufacturing facilities and other downstream businesses for the natural gas produced in Pennsylvania — to help businesses and individuals use more of Pennsylvania's natural gas in their homes, creating jobs, lowering costs and improving energy efficiency.


©2019 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.