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Money, Labor Central to Pennsylvania Broadband Expansion

The state’s action plan, which was recently adopted by the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, details efforts needed to make high-speed Internet available universally in five years' time.

(TNS) — Expanding broadband internet access across the rural reaches of Pennsylvania requires billions of dollars and thousands of workers.

The commonwealth's action plan newly adopted by the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority details efforts needed to make high-speed internet available universally in five years' time. It was created through the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

The total cost to build out high-speed internet infrastructure is estimated to approach $2.1 billion. More than half, or $1.16 billion, comes through the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program and is part of President Joe Biden's "Internet for All" initiative. Those funds are to be dispersed beginning in 2024.

Additional money is available through a mix of federal and commonwealth funds including $368.7 million from the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and another $200 million from Pennsylvania's Capital Projects Fund provided by the U.S. Treasury for broadband expansion.

The goal is to provide minimum download/upload service speeds of 100/20 mbps (megabits per second). According to the plan, 279,085 homes, businesses and organizations have service, if at all, below the federal minimum for broadband: 25/3 mbps. Another 54,048 have available service below the targeted 100/20 mbps minimum.

The plan cites a national survey that found, on average, customers pay $50 to $70 monthly for internet access. However, several respondents said a $10 charge would be all they could afford. Bundled packages like internet and cable television, a common offering from providers, were out of the question.

Pennsylvania falls below national averages both for internet subscriptions as well as ownership of computing devices, according to research included in the plan.

The commonwealth's diverse geographic terrain and sparse population density in rural communities are other complicating factors. Large portions of central, western and southwestern Pennsylvania are without reliable high-speed internet.

A survey by the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority shows many respondents had just one option for service providers and found the service to be spotty.

One more complicating factor: Digital literacy. According to the plan, more than 2 million households in Pennsylvania — about 3.4 million residents — are eligible for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program which helps reduce or eliminate the cost of internet service. However, just 31.5% of those eligible are utilizing the cost-saving initiative.

Existing Pennsylvania law prevents municipal and county governments from operating as internet service providers. The plan notes inaction in the General Assembly for two different proposals in 2019 and 2021. As it stands, local governments including regional collaboratives are encouraged to partner with ISPs and others to initiate and complete a buildout.

It'll be a huge undertaking. All told, more than 116,000 workers making up more than 38,000 crews are needed to expand wired and wireless internet infrastructure as the plan envisions. The workforce isn't there, yet.

The plan details how in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry, a structure must be established to develop the necessary workforce including positions like fiber and wireless technicians and software engineers.

It's estimated that for fiber cable expansion, 75% of the work will be aerial with the rest underground. Last-mile aerial work will take splicing eight locations daily to serve three homes each; buried last mile would be four locations daily for three homes each.

The fixed wireless work will take 200 broadband service locations. Radios to send out signals would cost $18,000 each with installation at $15,000 each, the plan states. The projected cost for customer equipment and installation: $700 combined. Another 80 cellular towers at $250,000 each are needed, the plan states.

© 2023 The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.