Study: 51,000 Pennsylvania homes and businesses could get broadband boost from Biden

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The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will send Pennsylvania and every other state $100 million for critical broadband network upgrades.

A study released on Tuesday found that many counties in southwestern Pennsylvania have thousands of homes and businesses with internet connections so slow they do not qualify as broadband.

The study from the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission found that 36,000 homes and 15,000 businesses in the region have substandard or nonexistent internet connections. While some of these locations may have internet services described as "broadband," the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted that those connections are so slow they are "barely fast enough to support a Zoom call."

Pennsylvania's government recently created the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, which is being funded with $100 million by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The authority will oversee the use of the federal funds to build out and subsidize broadband in the state.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said the federal funds will help more Pennsylvanians get access to faster internet.

"The authority will manage at least $100 million in federal aid that Pennsylvania will receive to support a coordinated and strategic rollout of broadband to more areas with the construction of new towers, lines and broadband equipment and other uses," Wolf press secretary Elizabeth Rementer told the site Technical.ly.

The infrastructure bill passed Congress with unanimous Democratic support and with a majority of Republicans opposing its passage. Of the nine Republicans in Pennsylvania's congressional delegation, all but one — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) voted to oppose the infrastructure bill, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden.

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure law allocates $65 billion for broadband programs nationwide. Of that sum, $45 billion will go to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program which gives states and territories the $100 million they can use to build local broadband networks.

Pennsylvania groups have highlighted the need for broadband as a key tool in bridging the "digital divide" to assist communities in need.

Allies for Children, a nonprofit group in the region, released a report as part of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Connected initiative that noted that the divide affects Pennsylvania children's ability to receive a quality education. The report noted that children in low-income households are more likely than children in middle- and upper-income homes to lack broadband internet, and that disparity heightens inequity in the education system.

Reliable internet access is also crucial for rural Pennsylvanians' ability to receive quality medical care with telehealth and telemedicine, experts say.

Members of both the state Democratic and Republican parties have previously cited the vital need for broadband improvements in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania House majority leader Kerry Benninghoff said in December it was "past time that gets done" after the legislature voted to create the broadband authority.

"Being 21 years into the 21st century, it is a failure on the part of too many people that so many within our Commonwealth lack access to what is now a basic life necessity," Benninghoff added.

At a recent press conference, Pennsylvania state Rep. Pam Snyder — whom Wolf appointed to help run the state's new broadband authority — noted that high-speed internet access is a necessary tool to attract new business to the region and boost the local economy.

"We can't compete if we can't connect," Snyder said. "Small businesses, large businesses, they're not going to locate in an area if they don't have access to broadband."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.