(TNS) — Expanding access to broadband internet service is vital for rural Pennsylvania communities and school districts, state legislators were told during a hearing on Thursday.
Customers across the seven-state region served by the Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative fear "they're being left behind in a new digital age," and given "second-class citizens status," said Tri-County president and CEO
In a two-hour hearing conducted by the Legislature's Center for Rural Pennsylvania, Eccher and other Tri-County officials shared the coop's story of undertaking an $80 million project — funded with $62 million in state and federal grants — to bring high-speed service to its customers in Bradford, Tioga, Potter, McKean, Cameron, Clinton and Lycoming counties.
Eccher said there are "striking" similarities between the effort to deliver rural broadband to calls nearly 100 years to bring electricity to those same areas, calls that were frequently swatted down by companies claiming it would be too difficult or expensive to do so.
Broadband access has taken on a new significance under the COVID-19 pandemic as school districts have been forced to hold virtual classes and many rural residents, especially seniors, have been required to schedule tele-medicine appointments rather than in-person ones with their doctors.
"In my district, broadband is the number one issue," said state Sen.
, R- Lycoming County, the chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
Tri-County officials repeatedly stressed the importance of broadband to rural communities. High-speed internet, they said, helps improve education and medical care, but also business development and the quality of life.
"It's time to eliminate the digital divide that exists between rural and urban Pennsylvania," said
, Tri-County's senior vice president.
Oswayo Valley School District Superintendent
said broadband is one of his three priorities and the small district in Potter County began working on the issue long before the pandemic hit.
Fortunately, he said Tri-County's project has helped his students gain high-speed access.
Hamberger said what he does not want to see is additional funding for broadband going to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia while rural residents are at the end of the line. "We need the same infrastructure here that they need there," he said.
There has been movement on the broadband expansion front in Pennsylvania:
— The Federal Communications Commission announced in December that it had awarded $369 million for 13 projects in the state that would bring service to 327,000 residents
in October signed a bill from Tioga County GOP state Rep.
that will allow electric cooperatives to use existing poles to build broadband infrastructure.
, R- York County, has been at the forefront of the broadband issue as chairwoman of the Senate Communications and Technology Committee. On Thursday, she said during the hearing that there has been progress, "but there's still work that needs to be done."
Phillips-Hill pledged that lawmakers will consider regulatory changes to pave the way for broadband expansion projects. "We would like to create an environment where you all can be successful," she said.
(c)2021 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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