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Will $1.2B Be Enough to Get All of Pennsylvania Online?

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced a $1.16 billion allocation to the state to close the digital divide. Not everyone is convinced it’s enough to bridge the gap.  

A road sign welcoming travelers to Pennsylvania.
(TNS) — Pennsylvania is getting $1.16 billion in new federal money to expand internet access to every home and business, one of only 19 states to get allocations over $1 billion, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced Monday.

But there's disagreement whether it will be enough to get everybody online by 2030, President Joe Biden's goal.

Pennsylvania is scheduled to receive the first 20% allocation of the award in December, with the balance distributed in spring 2024, White House officials said.

Mr. Biden announced each state's allocations for the $42.4 billion Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program Monday morning before joining Vice President Kamala Harris on a three-week Investing in America tour to talk up the program, which the administration compares to the electrification of the U.S. in the 1930s.

Federal officials say that some 8.5 million households in the U.S. do not have high-speed broadband, which the new funding aims to provide. The number of Pennsylvania sites without adequate broadband ranges between 300,000 and 600,000 — heavily concentrated in rural areas — depending on the data surveyed.

"This is a watershed moment for the millions of people across the country who lack access to a high speed internet connection who will soon have this necessary service to learn, work and play," Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communication and Information Alan Davidson said in a prepared statement. "States can now plan their grant programs with confidence and engage with their communities to ensure they spend this money where it is most needed.

But telecommunications expert Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State University, took issue with the government's estimate of unserved addresses, saying the 8.5 million estimate was "ridiculously low," adding that Pennsylvania should've received more money.

"It's much less that we should've received, which should've been $1.5 billion had we properly challenged the Federal Communications Commission maps," he said. "And so here we are, a few hundred million less than we could've had."

"This is worse than we anticipated," he said.

The undercount in the number of places without coverage means Pennsylvania will fall short in funding that's needed to get everyone online, Mr. Meinrath said.

"It's a downpayment," he said about Monday's award. "It's not that we haven't improved things; it's just that we haven't improved as much as other states," which competed against each other for the money.

Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority Director Brandon Carson said the authority had challenged more than 50,000 addresses the FCC said had speedy broadband, but in fact did not. Of those appeals, 28,000 were upheld.

Need will determine where the broadband authority distributes BEAD funding within the state, which will be based on FCC maps of internet availability. Over the years, FCC maps have notoriously overestimated the number of homes and businesses online.

The broadband authority is planning a series of events to receive public input on the BEAD money. Information gathered at the events, which will include a mix of in-person and virtual roundtables, will be part of the state's 5-year-plan to the federal government for how Pennsylvania will spend the funds.

The spending plan is due to the NTIA Aug. 12.

"We want to hear from as many Pennsylvanians as possible at our upcoming community engagement events," Mr. Carson said in a prepared statement. "We're working hard to make Internet for All a reality in Pennsylvania and being able to incorporate feedback from our residents, businesses and organizations is crucial in helping us develop broadband plans that address barriers and needs."

Meanwhile, many Western Pennsylvania counties have been moving ahead with expanding internet access to residents by using currently available American Rescue Plan and other funding sources. The Beaver County Office of Planning and Redevelopment announced Friday that Verizon Communications Inc. was chosen to connect 1,846 homes in 24 municipalities in the county where service is either not available or unreliable.

Beaver County allocated $11.9 million in American Rescue Plan funding for the project and Verizon matched the investment with another $12.3 million. The upgrade will provide internet speeds of 300 megabits per second, or about triple the new federal standard, according to the county.

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