HARRISBURG – State Sen. Scott Hutchinson (R-Oil City) said last week that he strongly agrees with Gov. Tom Wolf that Pennsylvania must expand high-speed internet service to all corners of the commonwealth.
However, Hutchinson said broadband expansion must be a top priority — one that is acted on quickly and funded by the commonwealth’s existing resources as opposed to the administration’s proposal to rely on state borrowing.
“Pennsylvania spends millions of dollars each year in discretionary funds for non-vital projects. There is no reason why that money cannot be repurposed for broadband expansion, a service that is essential now,” Hutchinson said. “The Governor’s proposal that relies on newly borrowed money will just end up delaying the work.”
An estimated 800,000 Pennsylvanians lack access to reliable high-speed internet service. Hutchinson said the COVID-19 pandemic stressed and intensified the need for broadband access in all communities across Pennsylvania.
“One of the most significant lessons we learned from the pandemic was the need for, and importance of, connectivity for all Pennsylvanians,” Hutchinson said. “This became abundantly clear when the Governor’s stay-at-home orders turned living rooms into remote workplaces and children’s bedrooms into satellite classrooms.
“That was a workable solution for those homes with broadband access, but the quarantine essentially isolated thousands of rural Pennsylvanians who were unable to connect because of a lack of adequate or reliable service,” Hutchinson continued. “The administration must realize that and take immediate action to remedy it. If this were an urban problem, the hue and cry from the media, activists and legislators would be deafening. It is no less of a problem just because these families live in rural areas.”
The Legislature is working to expedite broadband expansion with measures like Act 132 of 2020 (Senate Bill 835), Hutchinson said. The law established the Unserved High-speed Broadband Funding Program to improve access to high-speed broadband internet in rural areas of Pennsylvania, which currently do not have access to reliable networks. However, the Governor eliminated $5 million in funding for the program in his proposed Fiscal Year 2021-22 state budget.
A comprehensive report by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania on broadband accessibility and differences of service in urban and rural areas urged lawmakers to “maximize the options for broadband service provision by allowing other viable entities, such as community-based networks, municipalities, and cooperatives, to deploy broadband across rural Pennsylvania.”
The General Assembly followed up on that recommendation with passage of Act 98 of 2020 (House Bill 2438), which would aid in the deployment of broadband by using infrastructure that is already in place for other uses. The new law allows electric cooperatives to utilize existing utility poles to place fiber-optic lines if the placement does not adversely affect the value or use of the property.