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Smaller Pennsylvania Counties Are Losing Out on Federal Broadband Aid

With staffing issues and few resources, rural counties are most likely to have missed the deadline for correcting the broadband map, meaning they will miss out on millions of dollars in federal funding meant to bring the Internet to rural America.

(TNS) — At least $26 million is needed to bring Internet access to every corner of rural Fayette County — equivalent to 60% of the county's annual budget — after the discovery that far more places are without broadband connections than the federal government has identified.

"It's hard for people, hard for kids who need it at school," said Michael T. Olexa, a supervisor in tiny Jefferson Township in northwest Fayette County, where not even the municipal building is online.

"Throughout our country roads, there's no Internet," he said. "We're at everybody's mercy."

But it's too late to fix the Federal Communication Commission's broadband availability map before once-in-a-generation federal money begins flowing next year to expand Internet connections to homes, businesses and schools.

The billions of dollars in grant funding hinges on need, so an undercount of places without Internet means that local governments that skipped the deadline for correcting the map will miss out on millions of dollars that are meant to bring rural America into the digital age.

And with staffing issues and few resources, rural counties were most likely to have missed the deadline.

"It's a total mess," said Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State University, which is working with the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority to map the places without Internet connections. "It could be hundreds of millions of dollars lost."

Every missed address will cost between $2,000 and $3,000 in federal Internet aid, said Mr. Meinrath, which "adds up fast."

Many rural places lacked the expertise or money necessary to question the accuracy of the FCC map, including McKean County, a heavily forested area of northwest Pennsylvania. McKean did not question the map for those reasons, Commissioner Carol Duffy said.

"We have significant underserved and unserved areas," she said, describing Internet access in her county as spotty. "It's been difficult. We have limited resources."

Instead, McKean commissioners encouraged residents to check their Internet availability and speeds against the FCC map and file their own challenges — creating a new obstacle since many residents don't have an Internet connection to check.

Greene County, bordering West Virginia in the southwest part of the state, also did not challenge the FCC map of broadband availability, choosing instead to piggyback on corrections that were filed by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, which represents 10 counties.

"Larger, populated areas get better products," Greene County Commissioner Mike Belding said. "The rural counties suffer because they don't have the capacity to put together these initiatives."

Despite small government limitations, Greene County has been stringing together grants and donations from a variety of sources since 2020 to expand Internet access to homes and businesses, Mr. Belding said. The result: only small pockets of the county were expected to remain in digital darkness by the summer of 2024.

On the FCC map, Greene County shows up as a beacon of Internet starved Pennsylvania.

Other counties in Western Pennsylvania, including some smaller ones, rushed to challenge the FCC's connectivity map before the January deadline. Getting the maps right will translate into more federal dollars for counties and therefore more people enjoying telemedicine, online banking and shopping and other conveniences.

Image DescriptionOnce-in-a-generation federal money will begin flowing next year to expand Internet connections to homes, businesses and schools, but many smaller, rural counties in Pennsylvania will leave potentially millions on the table.

In Washington County, where 617 challenges were filed to the FCC map, the difference could mean an additional $1.5 million in grant funding for the county if they are accepted, Washington County Authority Director John A. Timney said.

It won't be until the end of June with publication of the latest FCC map that anyone will know whether the corrections were made.

"We think these are needle movers," Mr. Timney said, but "we won't know until June when the new FCC map will be published."

Inaccuracies were also found in Westmoreland County, which challenged 1,402 sites on the FCC map that were identified with speedy Internet service before the January deadline, but county officials say had no access at all — which could mean another $4.2 million in federal aid.

Back in Fayette County, the 2,374 homes and businesses found to be without adequate Internet service was twice as many as the official federal count of 1,201, according to a report released April 27 at a public meeting in Uniontown, where Commissioner Scott Dunn said he wanted to "blanket Fayette County with broadband."

It's a widely shared, if ambitious goal among elected officials.

But the finding came three months too late to fix the FCC map in time to maximize federal aid for broadband improvements. That ship sailed Jan. 13 when the comment period to make map corrections closed.

The undercount of homes and businesses, particularly in areas where municipal resources are scarce, will hobble rural America's move into the digital age by leaving millions of dollars in federal grant funding on the table — money that's budgeted to get more people online. As a result, already Internet-lacking rural counties will get fewer federal dollars than they are due.

Pennsylvania is in line for an estimated $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion of a whopping $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program funding, part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. The state has already received $5 million in BEAD money — by far, the biggest pot of broadband improvement money in a generation — with the bulk of the money expected to be distributed by early next year.

The crush began last fall with the FCC's release of a broadband map, which showed Internet connections and speeds for every address in the U.S. After the release, counties and other agencies were given just eight weeks — which included the winter holidays — to submit fixes to the government map, which has notoriously exaggerated Internet availability in the U.S. in the past.

The corrections included such things as showing places that did not, in fact, have an Internet connection when the FCC map indicated they had speedy access.

In some smaller counties, meeting the deadline for map corrections set off a hair-on-fire scramble.

"It was crazy town," Washington County's Mr. Timney said. "We have sixty years of telecommunications experience among us and we were caught flat footed."

Pushback on the tight deadline for map challenges came swiftly.

In a Jan. 12 letter to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, more than two dozen members of Congress asked to delay the deadline.

"Providing enough time for the challenge process is especially important given that we already know that many rural communities are missing from the map, many of which lack the resources or ability to file expedient challenges without additional technical assistance or guidance," they wrote. "Our concerns about the brief period allowed for review, comment and challenge to the map has been raised by several states, which have asked the NTIA to extend the challenge period."

The NTIA stood firm, writing in a January blog post that it had received more than a million challenges to the accuracy of the FCC map and a "delay in the timeline would mean a delay in providing funding to communities that desperately need it."

Counties weren't the only entities challenging the FCC map.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, an Uptown-based metropolitan planning organization, filed challenges on behalf of six of its 10 county members before the January deadline, deputy director Andy Waple said. But with a staff of about 20 people and a total 7,000-square-mile service area, the commission's FCC challenges were not finely detailed.

"A lot of counties don't have the staffing," he said. "There was this outcry — how are we supposed to do this?"

Like McKean, rural Venango County, about 85 miles north of Pittsburgh, didn't challenge FCC broadband coverage map, choosing instead to simply encourage the public to file their own challenges, Commissioner Albert "Chip" Abramovic said.

"We've done too many studies, too many reports, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for rural broadband and what have they done with it," Mr. Abramovic said. "Why don't we implement something instead of creating maps on top of maps?

"I'm rather disenchanted with the whole process, but what do you do?"

©2023 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.