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Pennsylvania Contemplates Creating Broadband Authority

Pennsylvania could get a one-stop shop for the hundreds of millions of dollars the state anticipates getting to stretch the Internet into small towns — a generational chance to bring rural areas into the digital age.

Broadband fiber
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(TNS) — Pennsylvania could get a one-stop shop for the hundreds of millions of dollars the state anticipates getting in the coming years to stretch the internet into small towns — a generational chance to bring rural areas into the digital age.

State House Bill 2071, which would create the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, was introduced on Tuesday and referred to committee. The authority would create a single point of contact for communication tower contractors, fiber optic cable installers and others seeking to bring internet service to rural Pennsylvania.

The authority would also adopt a statewide broadband plan.

State Rep. Pam Snyder, a Democrat from Greene County and a bill co-sponsor, said she's hopeful action will be taken on the bill next week.

"We hope to move it quickly," she said. "We have got to be in the position and ready to receive these federal dollars and right now, with no authority to oversee these dollars, we aren't. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity."

Meanwhile, Beaver County officials have taken an early lead in Western Pennsylvania in identifying areas that don't have adequate internet access, information that will be crucial to getting federal dollars to expand broadband service.

Included in the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that is awaiting President Joe Biden's signature is $65 billion earmarked for building towers and stringing the lines necessary to upgrade broadband coverage, which is the biggest single investment in broadband expansion in decades. States will receive broadband funds in slugs of $100 million — and potentially much more depending on need — as the initiative rolls out over several years.

"This is the single biggest downpayment to connect people," said Michael Romano, senior vice president, industry affairs and business development at NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, an Arlington, Va.-based trade group. "In the past, it was sort of piecemeal."

Part of the complexity of the project is figuring out just who is without internet access in the U.S. Industry watchdog group BroadbandNow of Irving, Texas, puts the number at 42 million without access, not including an estimated 18.5 million people who could get an internet connection but can't afford it.

In Pennsylvania, not even half the population of a single county had access to federal minimum internet speeds of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload, according to a 2019 study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

The new federal dollars will target jacking up minimum internet speeds to 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload to help "future proof" advances in computing.

Because of the project's size, the infrastructure improvements needed to power the new networks aren't expected to go live before late 2023 and probably more likely between 2025 and 2027, Mr. Romano said. Supply chain gridlock for electronic supplies such as routers will be among the factors slowing rollout.

States will be in the driver's seat in awarding federal dollars available for broadband upgrades. Applications for funding will be reviewed by each state, with oversight by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Priority will be given to high poverty areas and applicants also will be judged on how fast projects can be completed, according to Caressa D. Bennet, a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Womble Bond Dickinson.

In urban areas, internet access is usually delivered by fiber optic cable. But small outfits that extend internet access through wireless signals in rural and underserved areas will have a "real opportunity to grow" under the broadband infrastructure bill, she wrote.

Jeff Mullen, network administrator at nonprofit wireless broadband provider Rural Broadband Cooperative in rural Huntingdon County, questioned that assessment.

"All these big companies will get the money," he said. "The smaller companies, we get passed over. That's just how it is."

RBC has 249 customers and has had trouble keeping up with demand for service, Mr. Mullen said.

Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, a nonprofit company in Pittsburgh's Allentown neighborhood which has just 15 residential customers, plans to apply for federal grant money when it becomes available, said executive director Samantha Garfinkel.

Meta Mesh recently installed a dozen antennas atop the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland, some of which will be used to direct internet signals to a tower in the Westmoreland County town of New Kensington about 20 miles away, where residents can connect.

In New Ken — population 12,500 — 47.7% of the homes do not have broadband access, Ms. Garfinkel said.

Wireless internet requires a direct sight line from the antenna to the end user. That can be impeded by terrain, foliage and other factors. But wireless internet costs about one-tenth as much as installing fiber cable, which can range between $40,000 and $50,000 per mile, Ms. Garfinkel said.

New Ken is expected to get wireless internet access in mid-December.

Beaver County Commissioners began gearing up to improve broadband with an inventory of infrastructure assets such as natural gas, water and sewers that began three years ago, said Lance Grable, director of planning and development for the county. Through an exhaustive study with engineering consulting firm Michael Baker International, the county identified 2,359 homes, businesses and other locations that were underserved by broadband — twice the Federal Communications Commission estimate.

The data will become the basis of applications for money to improve broadband availability in the county.

At a rural broadband hearing in Harrisburg on Wednesday, Michael Baker GIS Program Manager Jeremy Jurick said many broadband speed tests conducted as part of the Beaver County survey fell well below federal minimum speeds.

Most phone speed tests clocking access to the internet were also slower than federal minimums, Mr. Jurick said.

Mr. Grable declined to discuss other specifics of the study until it was submitted to the county commissioners next week for review.

"We have a clear roadmap," he said. "We have such a clear picture of what we have and where we have to go."

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