Broadband expansion in Pennsylvania could give rural economies a boost

(The Center Square) – The federal largesse that will fund broadband expansion in Pennsylvania has two major political concerns: the potential economic growth due to business and education using broadband more, and the threat of a missed opportunity from wasting federal funds.

What’s key is connecting the unserved parts of Pennsylvania with the rest of the commonwealth, industry experts say.

“At the end of the day, absolutely right that the need is to ensure there’s a laser focus … to go after those truly unserved areas first, and any funding should be prioritized toward that,” said Todd Eachus, president of the Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania. The BCAPA is a trade group that mainly represents the cable industry.

The unserved areas, and where the challenge for expanding access lies, are mainly rural; the suburban and urban parts of Pennsylvania are already “served well,” Eachus said. In rural areas, access to broadband in the first place is the problem. In the suburbs and cities, adoption by individual households is the bigger issue.

The scale of money flowing in is significant. 

The federal Broadband Access, Equity, and Development program will send more than $42 billion to state governments. Another bucket of federal money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide $65 billion to states, as The Center Square previously reported. Pennsylvania expects to get at least $1 billion for broadband expansion from federal dollars alone.

While broadband access in rural areas is a challenge, it’s also an opportunity. The importance of the agricultural sector in rural Pennsylvania means that making technology easier to use outside population centers could boost the rural economy.

“Technology applies in the agriculture sector and it’s important to get service even to those most rural areas,” Eachus said. “You have to be able to compete in this global economy, and that requires a broadband connection. The laser focus has to be on those rural areas.”

Broadband would be a key part in a rural economic revival, along with lowering business taxes and attracting more people to settle in Pennsylvania.

“Reducing the corporate net income tax, things like that, we’re beginning to reverse the trend, and perhaps the state will begin to grow in population and become more attractive for businesses to cite, and come to Pennsylvania from a tax-advantage perspective,” Eachus said. “We have a huge opportunity with the new tax structure to grow Pennsylvania and reverse the trend.”

For that opportunity not to be squandered, it could come down to how efficient local and state government agencies can be. If localities and broadband developers aren’t working together, problems will arise and tensions flare.

For example, if federal funding reaches a town to pave a road, and then broadband money comes in to install broadband, it could ruin the work that was just completed.

The underground space is a tough space where both sides have merit, Eachus said. Localities don’t want streets to get cut up after they did asphalt work, and a moratorium on cutting the street can cause problems for expanding access.

A failure of coordination would then lead to wasted taxpayer money.

“Anytime there’s a lot of federal money floating around, there is inherent implementation risk,” Eachus said. There are administrative challenges to get broadband expansion right. “Like honey, lots of free federal money attracts flies.”

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