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What Pennsylvania’s Broadband Bill Means for One County

More than 800,000 Pennsylvanians lack access to high-speed Internet, with more than 520,000 of those residents living in rural areas, according to a 2020 study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

(TNS) — High-speed internet is essential to modern life, a fact made even more apparent in recent years as more people began working and attending school from home.

But access to it is hardly guaranteed.

“York County is peppered with holes in coverage,” according to state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township.

More than 800,000 Pennsylvanians lack access to high-speed internet, with more than 520,000 of those residents living in rural areas, according to a 2020 study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

But a possible solution is coming, via a recently passed bipartisan bill that created a new body, the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, to manage more than $100 million in federal funding that will create new infrastructure to improve broadband access.

“At the end of the day,” Phillips-Hill told The York Dispatch, “we accomplish what we need to — and that’s closing the digital divide.”

Increasing access to high-speed internet has been a priority for Phillips-Hill since she came aboard the General Assembly in 2015.

In York County, there’s a bit of a “disconnect” in internet coverage, she said.

Although the state Department of Community and Economic Development has said that York County is fully covered by internet, many residents complain that the accessible options aren’t fast enough to handle remote schooling or work.

The federal funding comes from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden.

The state legislation, which passed unanimously in both the Senate and the House, now awaits a signature from Gov. Tom Wolf, who issued a statement earlier in December to show his support.

“Every Pennsylvanian deserves access to the high-speed internet that broadband provides,” Wolf wrote. “It allows people to do their jobs, participate equitably in school and healthcare, and helps people stay connected. However, in many rural communities the infrastructure for broadband does not exist.”

Chiefly, the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority would be composed of 11 members to pass out grants and hire contractors. In order to receive funding, York County municipalities would need to apply and prove that they can utilize the funding efficiently and effectively.

“We want to make sure that the entities that are getting this funding and doing the work are reputable and capable of doing the work,” Phillips-Hill said, “so we’re not leaving our constituents holding the cost and not getting the service.”

All entities receiving funding could be subject to an audit. Any mishandling of funds will be subject to a claw-back provision by the state authority, she added.

On a lighter note, Phillips-Hill said she has spoken with several industry leaders and professionals who are excited at the prospect of increased internet services.

York County’s first responders, for example, could benefit.

Phillips-Hill referenced the case of a missing child back in September. First responders trying to find the15-year-old, who is autistic and nonverbal, struggled because of a lack of cell phone service.

“I know our first responders are anxious for better connectivity to protect the public,” she said.

Broadband also affects the agricultural community — which has a strong industry presence in York County. Farmers are using technology to manage pesticide distribution on their crops and to monitor animals.

The medical field also can benefit, Phillips-Hill said.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, WellSpan Health conducted roughly 1,900 telehealth calls in a year. In 2020, health professionals handled just under 2,000 telehealth calls a day. Diabetes technology and remote pacemaker monitoring could also be vastly improved for York County residents through a high-speed connection.

“This can help improve health care outcomes — really powerful things are happening,” Phillips-Hill said.

Internet access is one subject that has united Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, the bill passed both legislative chambers unanimously last week.

In part, that’s because broadband access isn’t simply a rural or urban problem.

“It’s not a regional issue,” said state Sen. John Kane, a Democrat from Chester County and a key supporter of the legislation. “It affects all of our constituents and all of our communities.”

© 2021 The York Dispatch (York, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.