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Pennsylvania Internet Expansion Bill Gets New Life

After sitting in the Pennsylvania Senate Communication and Technology Committee for nearly a year, Senate Bill 835 was amended and moved on for consideration this week, aiming to incentivize rural Internet expansion.

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David Kidd/Government Technology
(TNS) — After sitting in the Pennsylvania Senate Communication and Technology Committee for nearly a year Senate Bill 835 was amended and moved on for consideration on Monday.

The bill incentivizes internet providers or other capable agencies to expand into rural areas of the state and is primarily sponsored by Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Richland, but features bipartisan support.

“This is something we’ve been working on for some time,” Langerholc said.

He explained that the need for high-speed broadband internet, in this case classified as 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed, was brought to his attention in 2017 during the train derailment in Hyndman, Bedford County.

Seeing how taxed the first responders were with little to no service is what Langerholc used as a basis to get a draft together.

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought attention to the need of widespread, high-speed internet access, he said.

The way the bill will work is by making a “nongovernmental entity with the technical, managerial and financial expertise” of high-speed broadband infrastructure eligible for a grant to be used for rural expansion.

These grants, managed by the Commonwealth Financing Authority, will be funded through an initial $5 million contribution by the state government.

Langerholc said the $5 million will be enough to get the program off the ground and future funding will be a topic of discussion as the bill continues to move through the system.

All financing for the projects will be done through the Unserved High-speed Broadband Funding Program Account that Senate Bill 835 creates.

Organizations who receive this money must also agree to invest at least 25% of private capital to finance the proposed budget.

That portion of the finances cannot include other state or federal grants, according to the bill.

Any unused amount of the grant must be returned to the authority after the project is completed.

There will be an application and review process by the authority, and applications will also be posted on the authority’s website for public review.

Any area outlined in a proposed project must include evidence of an applicant’s ability to establish and maintain high-speed internet, a description of the area including a census block and certification that none of the awarded money will be used to expand internet in regions that already have access.

A proposed project area with broadband access is considered an “overbuild” and any application that is determined to be an example of this will be ineligible.

The legislation also requires the applicant to provide a list of the number of households and businesses that will benefit from the improvement, total cost and evidence “demonstrating the economic and commercial feasibility” of the installation.

Most of the amendments provided by the technology committee were technical, Langerholc said, and the bill will now move on to the appropriations committee.

Langerholc said if everything goes right with the legislation, there could be a vote this week or next.

“I’m hopeful,” he added.

“I think this is an issue that’s bipartisan.”

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