Community, business, educational and political leaders discussed the need to expand or bring high-speed internet service to rural and other unserved areas of the state, but noted the challenges in making it a reality. .
The public hearing hosted by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania addressed issues ranging from funding to building the infrastructure of broadband networks to serve the areas.
The good news is that there is a large pool available for financing broadband internet.
The Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program provides $42.5 billion to states for infrastructure financing, planning and deployment.
It was noted that other sources of funding may also be available,
State Sen. Gene Yaw, Township of R-Loyalsock, the hearing host, said he did not want to see his 23rd legislative district, which encompasses a large, mostly rural geographic region, take a “back seat” to other areas in funding allocations.
He noted that 73% of the state’s population is in just 19 of 67 counties.
Many hearing participants highlighted the need for high-speed Internet service where it does not exist.
Todd Eachus, president of the Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania, said the pandemic has revealed how critical it is to close the digital divide that continues to exist.
“We need to focus on the need to bring services to these underserved areas,” he said.
But you have to be careful to invest wisely, he added.
“This is a very large program and the risk of fraud is high,” he said. “It must be undertaken with a high degree of transparency.”
Brandon Carson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, said his group is developing a statewide plan for high-speed internet.
He noted that locations in sparsely populated areas are closely considered and prioritized.
“We know we have a lot of needs in our communities,” he said.
Barbara Burba, president of the Pennsylvania Wireless Association, noted that it will be necessary to find trained people to help set up the infrastructure and technology.
And, this would be achieved by partnering with educational institutions through apprenticeships and other programs
Wyalusing Area School District Superintendent Dr. Jason Bottigliere said high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
“The digital divide is real” he said.
Internet access, he explained, is a determining factor in where people live and is vital for education.
Jim Nobles, president and CEO, North Penn Comprehensive Health Services and Laurel Health Centers, noted that telemedicine depends on quality internet service.
“Behavioral health services remain our biggest use of telemedicine,” he said.
Without the ability to connect and speak to a provider, many patients are simply left without the care they need.
“We have to make it affordable” he said, adding that a short-term option is an audio-only connection.
Kristin Hamilton, executive director of Develop Tioga, noted that many people wanting to move to rural areas want quality internet service.
“We have people who want to move here, but how do you make sure underserved and unserved people have access?” she says.
Tioga County Commissioner Erick Coolidge stressed the importance of internet service for seniors who are otherwise isolated and separated from family members.
Through cooperation and partnerships, he said, high-speed internet can grow where it is needed.
Elizabeth Lose, assistant director, Center County Planning and Community Development, said expanding broadband is a big part of her county’s overall plan.
“Our goal was to extend our broadband as much as possible through public-private partnerships,” she says.