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‘It’s not a luxury, it’s a necessity:’ Advocates, officials emphasize need for high-speed broadband in rural Pa.

An internet technician is repairing or maintaining a fiber optic connection by opening a fiber optic connector.

by John L. Micek, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 25, 2022

Danielle Kassander is a Twitch streamer and mental health advocate from western Pennsylvania. And in her line of work, access to a high-speed broadband connection isn’t a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity.

“On my channel, I provide people with resources to help them work through the issues, and more importantly, a place to share their stories,” Kassander said Friday on a Zoom call organized by the Pennsylvania Democrats..

But while some in Pennsylvania may take access to quality, high-speed service for granted, in the state’s vast, rural middle service can vary wildly from county to county or community to community, advocates and officials said Friday. And that makes the need to improve those connections all the more pressing.

“This isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Kassander said. “It saves lives.”

States are currently flush with broadband funding after Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed, the $1.1 trillion infrastructure law last fall. The new law includes $65 billion in aid to develop rural broadband. Each state will get at least $100 million, but billions more will be available through applications for federal aid, the Capital-Star previously reported.

A newly created bipartisan, bicameral broadband funding commission met for the first time in Harrisburg earlier this month to start figuring out how to spend the federal windfall and to process those applications for assistance.

“I think everybody, Republican and Democratic, rural and urban, recognizes we need to figure this out,” Gov. Tom Wolf told the Capital-Star after the authority’s inaugural gathering.

The Wolf administration had already created an office of broadband initiatives to help manage internet expansion. But the new authority will now have the force of law behind it.

On Friday’s press call, participants stressed the interconnected nature of providing such connections, which help foster economic growth, which, in turns, helps to reinvigorate communities.

“Industry has left rural Pennsylvania and to get it back, we’re going to need depending able broadband service,” Donald Griner, a Cambria County-based representative of the American Council of State, Federal, Municipal and County Employees, said. “This creates more places for business to open, which employs more people, and provides a better standard of living for everyone Once we make this investment, we get business coming in, and people moving in. That a creates more tax revenue for local governments without raising taxes. They can reinvest in the infrastructure locally.”

The irony that was he speaking on a Zoom call, where a high-speed connection is a requirement, wasn’t lost on Griner, who said he rode out more than one choppy call at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians made the rocky transition to working from home, and, for their children, online schooling.

James Smith, the elected auditor for Indiana County, said the funding will allow more rural Pennsylvanians to access the burgeoning field of telemedicine, sparing them long drives to the doctor’s office.

“We have a lot of people who travel from Indiana to Pittsburgh,” Smith, a Democrat, said. “It’s because of this kind of investment that they will have more options to them so they don’t have to take a whole day off from work to travel to Pittsburgh to access quality medical care.”

And while Republican lawmakers, including those from Pennsylvania, failed to put up the votes for the infrastructure bill when it moved through Congress, Smith said he believes support for broadband expansion should be bipartisan.

“We’ve been looking at this in Indiana County since 2018, and I’m glad we finally have the funding to really push through on it,” he said. “It will make internet access more affordable.”

In Harrisburg, the newly created state broadband authority must prioritize projects in areas that have internet download speeds of less than 100 megabits per second, and upload speeds of 20 megabits-per-second — new standards championed by lawmakers in Washington D.C. to increase internet access.

According to a 2019 Center for Rural Pennsylvania report using 11 million speed tests from Pennsylvanians, most Pennsylvanians didn’t even have access to high-speed internet under an old federal standard of 25 mPs download and 3 mPs upload. Speeds were also slower in rural counties, the report found.

Internet expansion has been a rare bipartisan bright spot this session. The Legislature also approved a law to smooth the expansion of 5G internet in the commonwealth last summer.

For Josh Boland, the former head of Somerset County’s economic development authority, that’s welcome news.

Boland, who lives in the rolling Laurel Highlands, says the region’s topography and poor service frequently conspire to make access a headache.

“I’m glad to see the money is there,” he said.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

John L. Micek is the Editor-in-Chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.