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Broadband Bill Awaits Pennsylvania Governor’s Approval

A bill is ready for Gov. Tom Wolf's signature that would boost broadband in the state's rural areas by loosening restrictions on electric cooperatives' ability to attach broadband units to existing utility poles.

by Russ O'Reilly, The Tribune-Democrat / October 26, 2020
Rural Illinois Shutterstock/Ian Dikhtiar

(TNS) — A bill is ready for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf's signature that would boost broadband in the state's rural areas by loosening restrictions on electric cooperatives' ability to attach broadband units to existing utility poles.

Owned by their consumers and operated by an elected board of directors, rural electric cooperatives were formed in the 1930s to fill a need when private companies were slow to expand electricity to rural areas.

Today, broadband internet access is another need of their members, said Chad Carrick, president and CEO of REA Energy Cooperative.

"It may be hard for some to believe, but there is a good 40% of Indiana and Cambria counties that either don't have broadband internet access or it's not up to snuff, according to our surveys to our membership," Carrick said.

Approved unanimously in both legislative chambers last Wednesday, House Bill 2438 was sent to Wolf to be signed into law.

The bill would allow electric cooperatives to utilize existing utility poles to place fiber-optic lines without having to renegotiate easements with each landowner. Cooperatives have easements, but they are for electric consumption only.

And the bill allows cooperatives to install broadband units through an affiliate or partnering company. Those are important hurdles to clear, Carrick said.

"If we had to renegotiate all these easements, expansion would be impossible," he said.

Peter Fitzgerald , director of communications and member services for the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association, agreed with Carrick.

"Being representatives of these rural areas, we completely understand the digital divide and problem of rural broadband," Fitzgerald said. "It is a great need in rural Pennsylvania. So while it's not the mission of rural electric cooperatives to provide broadband, this legislation allows it for electric cooperatives interested in perhaps pursuing that."

Carrick said REA has already been in discussion with Cambria County's contracted broadband company, In the Stix Broadband, LLC, on a potential partnership.

"It's a win-win for everybody. We are talking to In the Stix and other providers in Cambria and Indiana counties to look at how we can put this bill to good use," he said.

The Cambria County Commissioners hired In the Stix to complete a $1.2 million broadband expansion project with federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The county is installing wireless broadband units on communications towers, buildings and even a grain elevator, thanks to an agreement with a landowner, said Cambria County Department of Emergency Services Deputy Director Art Martynuska.

"If they can put units on utility poles, then this legislation is a good thing," he said.

The broadband expansion is slated to be completed in December, Martynuska said.

Martynuska has said it before, and House Bill 2438 shows it — "Broadband is a utility now," he said.

Local government and industry leaders agree that broadband is key to economic and educational opportunities, especially with the newfound focus of at-home work and learning in the wake of COVID-19.

"Broadband is important now for two reasons," Johnstown Area Regional Industries entrepreneurial coach Blake Fleegle said.

"First, for small businesses, they are moving more online with e-commerce. Secondly, as people are working from home our goal is to attract remote workers to our region. Having broadband access is supremely important," he said.

Fleegle said JARI is in favor of any legislation that provides high speed internet access.

"Every county in our region is looking at bringing high-dollar earners to our region. Employers are finding people can be just as effective working in Johnstown as they would be in Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh. But they need to connect, and that's where broadband comes into play," he said.

In addition to House Bill 2483, another bill, Senate Bill 1112, would boost the state's efforts to expand broadband in unserved and underserved areas in rural Pennsylvania, according to a press release from Sen. Pat Stefano, R- Connellsville.

That bill would further deploy high-speed internet by requiring the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission to waive certain regulations that are no longer necessary or in the public interest, according to a press release from Stefano, whose district includes all of Somerset County.

That bill passed 33-16 in the Senate Wednesday and is now awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives.

Both pieces of recent legislation caught the attention of Somerset Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ron Aldom.

"Any improvement, funding or increase in broadband capabilities is extremely important to our county and region," Aldom said.

"Rural communities are already underserved and that has a huge effect on our students, especially in today's COVID environment. Most recently, we are experiencing a rise in the number of people leaving urban markets and purchasing homes in the county, especially in the resort areas. Many of them are working from home, so increased broadband is essential to them and is usually one of the first things they inquire about."

(c)2020 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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