It’s not often that we have an opportunity to report that a piece of legislation received bipartisan, unanimous approval, but all is good when there is complete agreement that rural areas of Pennsylvania deserve reliable, fast internet service.

The state Senate on Tuesday adopted — with a unanimous 50-0 vote — Senate Bill 835, which would authorize funding for high-speed broadband infrastructure development in underserved regions across the commonwealth.

The bill would establish a grant program to extend deployment of facilities that are currently providing broadband service and would limit the funding to those entities that have demonstrated the ability to build and administer the systems.

The bill also requires that the funding be used only in underserved areas that have much slower internet services than those routinely found in larger communities, and requires that entities competing to build and operate the broadband services contribute 20 percent of the total project costs.

“Representing an area the majority of which is rural, I see firsthand how many of my constituents do not have access to reliable high-speed internet,” said state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, Jr., who serves Bedford and Cambria counties and a portion of Clearfield County. “Reliable high-speed internet affords access to more educational opportunities and more high paying jobs,” he wrote in a memo to colleagues.

The disparity between lightning-fast internet services in cities and larger communities as opposed to slow or no internet services in rural regions is referred to as the “digital divide.” It has been a lingering problem for years, but has become more pronounced during the coronavirus pandemic as schools were forced to implement online educational programs for students and residents who turned to digital technology to stay in touch with isolated family and friends.

Fortunately, local officials also are working to end the digital divide. County commissioners in Northumberland, Snyder, Union and Columbia counties signed on with Montour County-based DRIVE — Driving Real Innovation for a Vibrant Economy — dedicating portions of their federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocations to develop plans for rural broadband technology that could eventually serve more than a quarter-million residents across the region.

Expansion of high-speed internet services into rural areas will be a complex effort. Advocacy from all levels of government will be necessary to finally bring faster, reliable online access — the same services offered to those in populated regions for years — to those who live and work in rural Pennsylvania.

We wish DRIVE the best in its efforts this year, and encourage state legislators to keep rural broadband expansion bills moving toward the governor’s desk.

NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and top community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Digital Editor Dave Hilliard.

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