Broadband expansion leaving rural residents behind

Pennsylvania is looking at $1.6 billion to expand broadband to rural and overlooked parts of the state, but experts are warning that the process puts the government in the way of success.

Pennsylvania, too, may face hurdles that other states simply don’t.

“One thing keeps getting in the way, and it’s called government,” Huntingdon County Commissioner Jeff Thomas told lawmakers during a House GOP Policy Committee meeting on Tuesday.

Local, state and federal governments, he said, undermined each other and put a stop to getting more towers up and fiber-optic cables in the ground.

Getting money from one agency meant that another agency would reduce awards from another, Thomas said. Putting one agency’s priority ahead of the broader goal to expand broadband can stop other efforts.

Access to poles to add equipment is a long-standing issue. Another is putting a new tower or getting a right-of-way on public land.

“We have many obstacles in the way,” Thomas said. “Some are just with the state game lands, state forest lands, and the federal lands in our county. Help us get access to put towers up on those lands.

“Permitting needs to change to speed up the project, but we are fortunate enough to get money. There’s so many regulations that we have to go through to get these towers up because it’s government funding.”

He called getting access to state game lands “almost possible” and noted how electric companies have refused county officials’ requests to add equipment to their poles.

“The infrastructure’s there – the big thing is the access to it,” Thomas said.

The problems like the ones Thomas described have worried other experts since the expansion plan was rolled out. The more delays that slow construction and upgrades eat away at the money – and there’s little expectation that more funds will follow for anyone left behind.

“This is a ‘once’ opportunity – never again are we going to see $1 billion-plus dollars flow into Pennsylvania to ensure we get every last member of this commonwealth the access that they so critically deserve,” said Todd Eachus, president of the Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania.

Eachus has warned of permitting hurdles and wage requirements driving up the cost of projects that could limit the rollout, and he repeated those concerns to Republicans.

“What was intended to be a broadband expansion program to bring service to the unserved and underserved has become what some see as an opportunity to divert these dollars for other purposes – what has been quoted to us is that this is as much a jobs bill as a broadband access bill,” Eachus said. “I think that’s wrong. This lack of focus places that goal of access to every Pennsylvanian at risk.”

The insistence, Eachus said, in Pennsylvania for high wage rates on projects has “caused concern at the federal level and placed Pennsylvania at significant risk for success.”

Legislative leaders compared the broadband push to other rural efforts from a century ago.

“We need to look at this problem exactly as they looked at rural electrification back in the ’20s and ’30s,” Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Huntingdon, said, noting that America put a man on the moon but struggles to get high-speed internet to rural areas.

Without better infrastructure, testifiers worried that young people would continue to leave rural parts of the state and an aging population would go without access to telemedicine and other quality-of-life improvements.

As the federal money will come into Pennsylvania throughout the rest of the 2020s, legislators pledged to stay engaged.

“This won’t be the last time we talk about this,” said Rep. Josh Kail, R-Beaver, said.


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