Year in Review: Getting Pennsylvania broadband built out

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(The Center Square) – At the end of 2022, Pennsylvania released its plan to bring “robust high-speed broadband infrastructure” to unserved and overlooked parts of the commonwealth.

Powered by $400 million from various federal pots of cash, the public learned in 2023 that the state will receive close to $2 billion for those efforts through 2028. During the year, the state has issued more plans – while officials and industry leaders have noted problems and successes.

Most of the funds will come via the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, along with the Capital Projects Fund to boost the build-out.

What went right

“The biggest highlight is the CBF fund, that $200 million fund, came together really well,” said Todd Eachus, president of the Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania. The Broadband Development Authority “received a really solid number of applications from providers who are looking to fill in those donut holes of unserved areas.”

The authority, he said, was transparent in the rules and what was required of providers for the funds. Grant awards are expected to be announced in early 2024.

BEAD: A bigger problem

Not everything was smooth sailing, however. The $1.6 billion BEAD program, Eachus said, had “some bumps in the road.”

BEAD is an acronym for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program.

The biggest challenge, he noted, was job classifications within the state’s prevailing wage rules. Communications association members hoped to see some reclassifications for fiber splicing and telecom linemen in line with other states. Those changes would set a lower wage than what current rules require. Instead, Pennsylvania providers will have to classify those workers as electric linemen, which has a $90 per hour wage.

With a limited amount of dollars to build out the infrastructure, Pennsylvania may build less than neighboring states.

“That’s really going to stress CBF and BEAD dollars, and challenges our ability to get to every unserved and underserved Pennsylvanian,” Eachus said. “That’s a big concern.”

Permitting hurdles

Other problems include regulatory issues that could slow down the process of getting a project started – and finished.

Brandon Carson, executive director of the development authority, has warned of permitting “bottlenecks” that could threaten projects and make would-be partners decline to help expand broadband, even with the available money.

“The key to this is going to be speed to market and a smooth approach,” Eachus said. Getting local and state officials on the same page, with a go-to point of contact to fix broadband issues, matters greatly.

Otherwise, he said, the broadband program could become a jobs program.

Labor shortages

Pennsylvania has more than 300,000 unserved and underserved locations in the state. But connecting them to broadband is partially a question of finding enough workers to do the job.

Experts estimate up to 7,000 skilled workers are needed, but with all states building infrastructure at the same time, an effective program might hinge on getting enough young people trained.

Without enough laborers, the new buildout could deteriorate into what the Northern Tier has seen: a state investigation into poor phone and internet service with a pending $100 million settlement to address systemic failures.

Federal bureaucracy

As the federal government sends out $43 billion nationally for broadband expansion, the help is a mixed blessing. State officials have called the BEAD program “the most burdensome federal program.”

In Pennsylvania, Eachus warned that a push from the FCC to reclassify broadband from a Title I to Title II service could “chill investment,” which threatens future maintenance of the new infrastructure.

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