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Before Pennsylvania spends $1.2B on broadband, these big steps must be taken

The Biden administration said the money will bring broadband to everyone in Pennsylvania. But we still don’t know exactly who can’t get the service.

Pennsylvania still needs to make sure that federal money helps everyone dealing with bad internet connections. (Photo by Amanda Berg for Spotlight PA)

This news article was written by Charlotte Keith of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for Spotlight's free newsletters.

Before Pennsylvania can spend an almost $1.2 billion windfall of federal funding for high-speed internet, it must figure out how to use it.

More than 270,000 locations across the commonwealth can’t get internet at speeds that meet the federal government’s minimum standard for broadband, hampering their access to government services, healthcare, and education.

State-level efforts to improve broadband availability have long been stymied by a lack of funding, given the scope of the problem. Now, long-awaited federal grant dollars will give fast, reliable internet connections to thousands of residents.

President Joe Biden’s administration announced the grant allocation in late June after months of anticipation. Earlier in the year, state and local officials scrambled to give feedback on the federal map used to decide how much money each state would receive.

The Biden administration said the money will supply broadband to everyone in Pennsylvania. “People have been talking about the digital divide for decades,” Evan Feinman, the federal official overseeing the broadband grant program, told Spotlight PA. “We are going to close that divide once and for all.”

So what happens next?

A lot of work still needs to be done, experts, advocates, and state and local officials said at a Thursday event in State College that focused on how Pennsylvania can make the most of the money.

As the commonwealth prepares to receive this historic infrastructure investment, here are three things you should know about how the money will be distributed and who could benefit:

We still don’t know exactly who can’t get broadband.

Despite recent improvements, the federal map used to allocate funding to states has some gaps. Before the money was divided up, state and local governments were able to submit challenges if they found that the map overlooked areas that lacked broadband. Pennsylvania’s broadband authority submitted around 50,000 challenges, more than half of which were upheld by the federal government.

But local officials complained that the deadlines were too tight and that it was unfair to expect residents without broadband access to submit their feedback online. Residents had “zero awareness” and the map was not user-friendly for the average person, said Clearfield County Commissioner Dave Glass.

Before Pennsylvania gives out the coming grants, local governments, community groups and internet service providers will have another chance to tell the state which locations need the funding. Sorting through this will require “a boatload of sweat and elbow grease,” said Feinman.

Physical infrastructure is only part of the solution.

A large part of the broadband buildout will involve laying fiber-optic cables. In many cases, the state will likely give grants to internet service providers, which will then do the actual building.

But that’s only one part of making sure people have internet access, said Rick Siger, secretary of the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

“We know the mission isn’t done when the infrastructure is built,” Siger said. “We have to make sure people can afford it and we have to make sure people understand how to use it.”

On top of the existing federal funding, Pennsylvania will receive money from a separate grant program that aims to give people the skills and technology to use the internet.

More planning and more public comment.

Pennsylvania has six months to submit a plan to the federal government that outlines how it will choose which projects to fund.

A separate five-year action plan will be available for public comment starting July 26. The state broadband authority has also been holding a series of community events and is asking residents to share their experiences in a survey.

WHILE YOU’RE HERE: If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

Companies: State of Pennsylvania

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