Extending reliable broadband internet service to rural portions of Pennsylvania remains a vital effort, especially in recent months when the coronavirus has isolated families in homes where children have little or no access to online educational and social resources and businesses with unreliable connectivity struggle to compete with others that have lightning-fast services.
Fortunately, two bills were unanimously adopted on Thursday with 202-0 votes in the state House of Representatives, both designed to reduce the digital divide — the availability of broadband internet service for those who live in towns and cities compared to those who live in rural areas. Both bills now move on for consideration in the state Senate.
House Bill 2348 could create the “Underserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program” to generate grants for non-government entities with the technical, managerial and financial expertise to design, build and operate high-speed internet in rural areas. Any entity that qualifies for the grant would be required to invest 25 percent of the project costs from its own funds. Additional state and federal funding could be invested as well.
House Bill 2438 would allow rural electric cooperatives to use their existing infrastructure to deploy fiberoptic lines to deliver broadband internet service.
“Just like electric cooperatives blazed the trail for bringing electric service to the most remote areas of the state, they are in a position to do the same for high-speed internet access,” state Rep. David Rowe, R-85, wrote in a recent note to his constituents in Union and Snyder counties.
The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Clint Owlett, R-68, whose district includes Tioga and portions of Bradford and Potter counties, noted in a memo to fellow House members that outdated easement agreements were slowing the progress of rural broadband deployment.
Utilities use easeement agreements to access to place poles and electric lines on private property, Owlett said.
“Unfortunately, some easements held by electric cooperatives do not specifically permit them to attach fiber lines to those poles to provide broadband, even though their members want this service,” Owlett said. “The result is that cooperatives that want to provide these services must go to each property owner individually to change these outdated agreements, a cost-prohibitive process. This is a common issue nationwide that many states have already passed legislation to change.”
Meanwhile, Microsoft has called the digital divide an “urgent national problem that can and must be solved.” Early last year, the computer giant launched the “Microsoft Airband Initiative,” a five-year commitment to bring broadband access to 2 million underserved Americans living in rural areas.
Microsoft said “white space” technology within the television broadcast band can be a “game-changer” for rural America. “We’re confident that using a mixed model that combines wireless technologies including 4G and TV white spaces, traditional fiber-based connectivity and satellite coverage can dramatically reduce the cost and time of extending broadband access to rural communities across America,” Microsoft writes.
We are here to cheer on all of the governmental and private sector efforts. We must fix this digital divide, an issue that — as we reported a few months ago — forced an 11th-grader from the Line Mountain School District to wake up at 6 a.m., a time when there isn’t as much online traffic, just to have enough internet speed to complete her homework.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Digital Editor Dave Hilliard.