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Plans brewing over how to spend ‘digital equity’ broadband funds

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(The Center Square) — Building out broadband in Pennsylvania means billions in federal cash.

One leg of the plan is for creating basic infrastructure while the other is for what officials call “digital equity.”

The Broadband Development Authority will submit its digital equity plan at the end of January to the federal government and it’s soliciting public comment until Jan. 8.

Digital equity money will be for “ensuring that everyone has affordable, fair and equal access,” said Kirsten Compitello, national broadband digital equity director for Michael Baker International, a consulting firm doing work for the BDA, during an online public meeting on Monday.

The funds will get laptops in the hands of underserved groups, offer training, teach digital skills to the public and provide technical services, among other programs.

The federal government will offer $2.75 billion to all states, but it’s not yet clear how much Pennsylvania will get. Officials expect to find out in early 2024, along with guidelines of how they can spend the money.

The mission is “digital dignity for all residents,” Compitello said. “We don’t want to build the infrastructure without ensuring that our residents are able to effectively and successfully use it.”

The draft plan is available for download and focuses on different groups like the elderly, people with language barriers, low-income families, ethnic minorities, veterans, disabled residents, prior criminal offenders, rural residents and others.

Almost 8,000 residents filled out a survey about the internet access troubles and more than 600 people attended meetings the broadband authority held across the state in recent months.

Public comments compared internet coverage to “Swiss cheese” that left dead spots all around a county while others complained of a lack of competition where locals were left at the mercy of one provider.

Those sorts of problems can spark a state investigation like in the northern tier where telecom company Frontier faces a $100 million settlement that would address outages and poor services.

Broadband expansion isn’t only a concern for rural Pennsylvanians, either.

“A lot of these issues are shared by many residents across the state, these are not unique to one population,” Compitello said.

The $1.16 billion Pennsylvania will receive for infrastructure upgrades and additions – from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program – is the first step in the broadband plan. The digital equity funds follows, filling in some practical gaps caused by a lack of experience with the internet or dealing with economic hurdles.

The broadband authority, for example, will require companies that receive grant funds to participate in a federal affordable connectivity program that gives a $30 monthly discount on internet plans for low-income households, Compitello said. Companies will have to boost participation by 5% in their coverage area and create a middle-income affordability plan, too.

After approval from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the authority can start sending out grants for the work.

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