Expanded broadband access on the horizon for rural Pennsylvania

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For the 800,000 residents living without access to broadband across Pennsylvania, hope appears on the horizon.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation Thursday authorizing cable companies to use existing infrastructure and land easements owned by rural electric cooperatives to bring high speed internet to the state’s most underserved areas.

Prime sponsor Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, said although his bill doesn’t deploy service overnight, its a step in the right direction.

“This law has effectively cut through some of the red tape that has been holding us back from better broadband service in rural Pennsylvania,” he said. “We still have work to do, including a bill that would identify funding for expansion projects.”

Economic and travel restrictions in place since March shone a spotlight on the state’s ongoing digital divide. With more people working from home, patients seeking telemedicine and children participating in school remotely, the need for reliable high-speed internet became a top priority, Owlett said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, some 800,000 residents lack access to broadband connectivity. In January, the agency approved the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which will invest $20.4 billion over the next decade to bring high-speed broadband networks to 6 million Americans in underserved areas, including nearly 200,000 homes and businesses in Pennsylvania alone.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, however, says the FCC underestimates the true number of residents lacking access to broadband connectivity because it relies on self-reported data from internet service providers. Although the agency’s official broadband maps show 100 percent availability statewide of speeds that exceed 25 Mbps, the center’s own research indicates no single county could report that at least half of its populace received connectivity.

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