Rural broadband permitting ‘bottleneck’ may add insult to injury



(The Center Square) — Rural Pennsylvania continues lagging on broadband internet and, in many cases, even basic phone service.

As $1.5 billion in federal money flows into Pennsylvania in the coming years, however, legislators from the countryside want to see meaningful improvement.

“We can go through and talk about hundreds of millions, billions, if not get into trillions of dollars of the amount of money that we waste in this country, nationally and in this state,” Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Connellsville, said during a House Republican Policy Committee hearing Tuesday. “And here we are fighting for people to have basic services.”

“That’s frustrating to me,” he added. “That’s frustrating to me that we have $1 billion to give to terrorists, but we don’t have enough money for people to have phone service or internet in Fayette County or to have adequate access to EMS.”

Warner’s dissatisfaction came from what he saw as a decline in phone quality as other technology like 5G has been built out.

“It has been detrimental to rural Pennsylvania,” he said. “Our cell phone coverage in Fayette County and in rural Pennsylvania has decreased since 5G has been implemented.”

Other areas, like rural Luzerne County, have had companies like Verizon decline to repair lines that failed due to high costs, Luzerne Township Supervisor Gregg Downer said, leaving homes “dead in the water.”

In Tioga County, service has been so poor that the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission opened an investigation into a local telecom company after the Office of Consumer Advocate filed a complaint.

Limited connectivity poses a hazard for emergency services, too. Richard Black, the fire chief for Brownsville Fire Company No. 1, who also works for the Fayette County Emergency Management Agency and as a paramedic for the Brownsville Ambulance Service, has seen it firsthand.

“There are often times where cell phones don’t work where I need to consult with a physician,” he said. “There’s been often times where I’ve lost contact with doctors at the time of dealing with a critical patient.”

The national expansion of broadband, spurred by $43 billion of federal funds, aims to eliminate those problems. Pennsylvania has roughly 330,000 unserved and underserved locations, and experts have warned that the state will have to deal with labor shortages, prevailing wage requirements that drive up costs, and overhanging regulatory problems that could undermine the build-out.

Officials in states like Virginia have also warned that the federal program sending out the money has one of the highest administrative burdens and limits public-private partnerships.

Those limitations could stonewall Pennsylvania.

“The bottom line for us has become public-private partnerships,” Brandon Carson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (which disburses the federal funds), said. “We have nearly $1.5 billion in federal funds available, but we need partners to invest those funds in, whether they’re local governments looking to champion projects in their communities, or if they’re incumbent internet service providers that want to expand their existing infrastructure.”

Carson warned that those partnerships are crucial to making rural broadband a reality.

“We could have $5 billion — if we don’t have willing partners to build these networks out, it’s a non-starter,” he said.

Ensuring that those projects are quickly approved by a constellation of state agencies and local governments, too, could make or break the buildout. Carson called permitting “paramount.”

“We’re gonna be in a position to start awarding funds early in ‘24 and then additional funds as we move into 2025, but if we have delays on the permitting front, it’s going to be a huge bottleneck for us,” Carson said. “If the delays are there and we don’t streamline that process in advance, we’re going to face some real challenges.”



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