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Pennsylvania Taking Regional Approach to Broadband Improvement

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission is teaming with Carnegie Mellon University, Allies for Children and others to take a regional approach to improving broadband service in a 10-county area.

(TNS) — The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission is teaming with Carnegie Mellon University, Allies for Children and others to take a regional approach to improving broadband service in the 10-county area in an effort to take best advantage of $65 billion in recently approved federal infrastructure funds.

For more than a year, the planning agency has been working mostly behind the scenes with consultant Michael Baker to identify broadband dead spots, areas with insufficient service, and residents who can't afford service, under a program dubbed SWPA Connected. Through funding from the Hillman Family Foundations, the group has held a series of meetings throughout the region to hear from residents about broadband service and developed a series of maps showing the level of broadband service in each neighborhood.

On Monday, the group kicks off the more public part of the effort: a survey where users and would-be users can tell the agency about their broadband experiences and identify shortcomings to supplement the consultant's findings.

Ultimately, the agency's goal is to serve as a regional clearinghouse for broadband policy development and to coordinate projects and applications for funding on a regional basis. That's similar to its more traditional role of overseeing transportation projects for the region with one major difference: Local communities usually bring transportation projects and ideas to the commission for review, but in this case the agency is reaching out to solicit broadband concerns so it can help find solutions.

Shannon O'Connell, director of SPC's Office of Communications & Public Engagement, said the need to work and learn from home during the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted quality broadband as "the new mobility." SPC is believed to be the only regional planning agency across the country involved in a broadband program.

"It's definitely something new we're taking on," Ms. O'Connell said.

"We saw an opportunity with the pandemic. How do we make it so that those that are in need can get [quality broadband service]? That's why we sought to do it for the entire region."

The need for quality broadband became obvious as some communities and families struggled with distance learning because they either didn't have service, had inefficient service, or couldn't afford the service that was available, said Jamie Baxter, executive director of Allies for Children, an agency based on Pittsburgh's North Side. She and others said broadband has become a right and necessity like water and electrical service.

"Our work is to make sure we have a clear picture of the needs," Ms. Baxter said. "As money comes down from Washington, we need to make sure we have a plan. That's why we're working on this piece now so we know truly what the needs are when the money becomes available."

Carnegie Mellon's role will be to help develop the technical needs and craft proposed policies for using the federal funds, said Karen Lightman, executive director of the university's Metro 21: Smart Cities Institute. Funds are expected to pass through the state's Department of Community and Economic Development.

Ms. Lightman said the broadband initiative comes with a strong emphasis on equity, making sure everyone has equal access to the same quality of service. States, local officials and residents all will have roles in designing what she called a new public service that isn't available in as much as half the state.

The funding includes money for programs to make sure all families can afford the service and that service can be provided to those even in the poorest and most rural areas in some manner, Ms. Lightman said.

"It's not going to be one size meets all needs," she said. "Sometimes a different type of technology might be needed to service an area. Instead of fiber optic, maybe it's satellite."

Ms. Lightman said the expectation is that money should begin to flow next year and that some changes could start as early as 2023.

Sheri Collins, executive director of corporate relations for the state DCED, has been working closely with the group. She said programs such as SWPA Connected can only help the state meet broadband needs.

"This effort is a great example of how the private and public sectors can join forces to improve the lives of Pennsylvanians through real conversations, research, data gathering, and bringing all the right groups, including citizens, to the table," she said in a statement.

"The SWPA Connected initiative stands as a potential framework that can be leveraged to help other communities identify where and how to invest."

The commission covers Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington, and Westmoreland counties and Pittsburgh.

The survey is available online or by telephone at 412-407-4555 through Dec. 5. Participants will be eligible to win one of 50 gift cards worth $50 each.

The program also has two more community input meetings scheduled: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Crawford Village housing complex in McKeesport and 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 1 at the Jeron X. Grayson Center in the Hill District. Participants could receive a $20 gift card.

© 2021 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.