Wolf aiming to accelerate broadband access for Pa.
HARRISBURG, Pa. — As the information-driven global economy increases in importance, the need for e-connectivity becomes imperative.
Numerous initiatives, studies and presentations are underscoring the urgency, and leading to multiple efforts.
USDA’s program, “ReConnect,” boosts the goal of expanding broadband service to rural areas without sufficient access.
The program defines sufficiency as 10 megabits per second downstream and 1 Mbps upstream.
More than 800,000 Pennsylvanians lack access to reliable high-speed internet.
Of these, more than 520,000 reside in rural areas, while 250,000 are in urban areas.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf includes broadband in his “Restore Pennsylvania” infrastructure initiative.
While the plan also encompasses other initiatives to boost the Commonwealth’s growth potential, still the proposal recognizes that “connecting Pennsylvanians to high speed internet is the most meaningful rural economic development initiative we can undertake today. …”
“Restore Pennsylvania” notes that success will require significant funds from the state, plus partnerships with the federal government and stakeholders.
Investment of $4.5 billion over four years is planned, with the efforts funded by a severance tax on natural gas production approved by the legislature.
High cost challenges the digital divide.
One example cited in the “Restore Pennsylvania” plan by Windstream Communications reports that building a new fiber line can cost up to $50,000 per mile.
The plan promises grants to support each phase—from feasibility testing to connection.
The tax to further “Restore Pennsylvania” is slated to increase as producer profitability increases.
As noted, these projects envision partnerships.
The Commonwealth has already achieved some success in its 2018 Broadband Investment Incentive Program with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
The nearly $18 million funding through PennDOT enabled the goal of supporting intelligent transportation systems, connecting vehicle infrastructure, and improving access to PennDOT facilities.
In exchange for the incentive funding, the program participants agreed to supply PennDOT with the use of network facilities and services.
Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc. was awarded $15.6 million for 7,015 units in Potter, Tioga, Lycoming and Bradford Counties; Armstrong Telephone Company was awarded $1.3 million for 2,182 units in Erie, Crawford and Mercer Counties; and Velocity.Net was awarded $112 thousand for 39 units in Erie County.
The benefits included connections to offices and stockpiles plus connectivity for intelligent transportation devices and access to nearly 400 miles of fiber connectivity for 30 years.
USDA recently announced the application deadlines for the $600 million to be awarded in the ReConnect Program.
Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities may all apply for funding.
These will be awarded to connect to rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service, and for projects with financially sustainable business models that will bring high-speed broadband to rural homes, businesses, farms, ranches and community facilities such as first responders.
The deadline for grants is May 31, 2019; the loan/grant combinations deadline is June 21, 2019; and the low-interest loan deadline is July 12, 2019.
Technical assistance for the applicants is available from USDA at usda.gov/reconnect/contact-us.
More information is also available on page 5981 of the Feb. 25, 2019 Federal Register and page 64315 of the Dec. 14, 2018 Federal Register and reconnect.usda.gov.
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