This week, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the creation of an 11-person group called the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority that will manage at least $100 million in federal funding to coordinate the rollout of broadband internet across the state.
The funding comes from the recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, approved by Congress and stamped by President Joe Biden. On top of plans for the energy sector and America’s roads, the law is dedicating $65 billion to boosting internet access and connectivity.
It’s a move toward closing the digital divide that exists in both rural areas and cities. Pennsylvania is one of about half of the US states without a dedicated broadband office, as of December 2021.
This new government body follows the enactment of other statewide broadband programs from recent years. In 2018, Wolf’s administration launched a $35 million Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive Program to expand broadband in rural areas, and in 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development launched the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program to further support the deployment of high-speed broadband infrastructure to unserved areas with $10 million in funding.
While communities across the state face vulnerabilities of connection, rural counties are especially isolated when it comes to high-speed internet, which has become even more vital as jobs and schooling had gone remote. At least half a million Pennsylvanians are without broadband internet currently, per the state, leaving those residents out of economic growth and opportunities.
“Broadband is as essential today as electricity and water. But there is a digital divide in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said in a statement. “This Broadband Authority will close the divide and ensure consistent, affordable, quality statewide broadband to keep children learning, businesses growing, and opportunities abounding for all Pennsylvanians.”
The $100 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be managed by the Authority, a bipartisan group created by House Bill 2071 in December. The group is made up the secretaries of the Pennsylvania Departments of Agriculture, Community and Economic Development, Education, General Services and Budget; the executive director for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania; the chairperson of the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission; and legislators Rep. Pam Snyder, Rep. Carl Metzgar, Sen. Kristen Phillips-Hill and Sen. John Kane.
“The creation of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority is just the beginning step to connect millions of Pennsylvanians to high-speed internet,” Snyder said in a release. “Now the commonwealth has a single entity that can solely focus on making sure that every resident has equal and affordable access to broadband, no matter where they live.”
Press Secretary Elizabeth Rementer told Technical.ly that the authority held a kickoff meeting Tuesday, and will be a “single point of contact to oversee and support broadband development.” She did not provide comment on whether the Authority has any more specific goals at this time.
“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 construction of new towers, lines and broadband equipment and other uses,” she said.
The funding is likely good news for more grassroots efforts toward connectivity, like Philly Community Wireless, a North Philadelphia-based group that’s connected the Norris Square Park neighborhood with a mesh Wi-Fi network, or Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, a nonprofit wireless internet service provider based in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood.
Philly Community Wireless’ admin lead, Alex Wermer-Colan, said while the group is still parsing out how the funding and the Authority will work, they’re “optimistic” that the federal funds will be given to institutions, community groups and diverse internet service providers across the state and the country “who are dedicated to ensuring everyone can access the range of digital resources and training they need to thrive in the world today.”
“Bridging the digital divide in the United States is going to require a variegated, patchwork solution, but a vital part of ensuring sustainable, affordable internet access and adoption involves leveraging local community resources so the public has a stake in the provision and use of these utilities and technologies,” Wermer-Colan said.
The announcement of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority comes as Philadelphia city government launched its own digital equity plan spanning the next five years.