(TNS) — As school districts plan for the fall and healthcare providers rethink services amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for reliable, broadband internet in rural Pennsylvania is more critical than ever.
"This is an issue that has risen to the top, and we need to make sure that we keep it there," said state Rep. Pam Snyder, a Democrat from Greene County in the state's far southwest corner.
In the last few years, Snyder has partnered with state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York County, to become advocates for unserved and underserved rural Pennsylvania communities that lack access to high-speed broadband, estimated at more than 500,000 by Gov. Tom Wolf's administration. The two are co-founders of the General Assembly's bicameral Broadband Caucus, which champions access for rural and underserved areas.
When the pandemic hit, schools — from elementary to college level — were forced to transition to online learning, and telemedicine, which involves patients visiting with physicians via live video, became a normal part of everyday life.
Phillips-Hill, chairwoman of the Senate Communications and Technology Committee, said the lack of access to broadband for small, rural districts "really impedes what they can offer their students."
As for telemedicine, Phillips-Hill said that a WellSpan Health official told her in the midst of the pandemic that the system hosted about 1,900 telemedicine visits in 2019 only to see a similar number being hosted per day during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Federal Communications Commission defines rural broadband as a 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed.
Expanding broadband is part of Wolf's Restore PA initiative, and Wolf joined with several other governors on a bipartisan letter in June asking President Donald Trump and congressional leaders to continue investing in broadband infrastructure.
"An investment in broadband internet connectivity is an investment in our commonwealth's future and prosperity. The critical need for high-speed internet has become clear in light of our efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, as more families work and learn from home, businesses operate online services and patients access medical care through telehealth," Wolf said in a June 25 statement.
"Now, as Pennsylvania focuses on our economic recovery," said Wolf, "it's critical that broadband internet access becomes a reality for every community, and especially our rural areas."
Phillips-Hill, however, has criticized Wolf's Restore PA, saying in a September 2019 statement that the administration's plan lacks details and relies on borrowing and a severance tax on the natural gas industry.
Instead, Phillips-Hill touted her two Senate resolutions the body has supported. Senate Resolution 47 would form a special legislative commission involving public and private stakeholders to review high-speed broadband services in underserved and unserved Pennsylvania communities.
The second measure, Senate Resolution 48, calls for an investigation and audit into the taxes collected about 20 years ago via phone bills that were supposedly dedicated to building high-speed internet.
"We don't have the time right now to repeat the mistakes of the past," Phillips-Hill told the USA Today Network earlier this month.
Wolf's statement said that 18 million Americans and nearly a million Pennsylvanians do not have access to broadband. The federal government has been investing in rural broadband over the last decade, but it doesn't seem Pennsylvania projects have been high on its priority list.
The Connect America Fund, started during the Obama administration, distributed $115 million to 37 states in its first phase, but not Pennsylvania.
In February 2018, the Federal Communications Commission announced a Connect America Fund II that would give out $2 billion over 10 years to states to build the necessary infrastructure for broadband.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a progress report on the ReConnect program, which included awarding $744 million through March for more than 80 broadband projects across 34 states encompassing 430,000 rural residents.
Pennsylvania, however, was not one of those states.
Meanwhile, state legislators have been addressing the issue, with Phillips-Hill's committee approving three recent bills that would help expand broadband access in Pennsylvania.
On June 22, the Communications and Technology Committee approved Senate Bill 835, introduced by state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Cambria County, that would create a broadband accessibility funding program. Projects seeking funding would need to have at least 25 percent private investment.
The bill also eliminates the $5 million mobile telecommunications broadband investment tax credit, which Phillips-Hill said was unnecessary because 90 percent of spending under the tax credit would have occurred anyway.
"We want to incentivize in areas where (broadband) won't be done," she said.
The committee also moved Senate Bill 1118, introduced by state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana County, and House Bill 2438, introduced by state Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga County, both of which would allow electric cooperatives to use their existing poles for fiber-optic lines to carry broadband.
Phillips-Hill's own Senate Bill 1112, which is with the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, would remove what she called "regulatory barriers" to expanding broadband during the pandemic.
"Over the last few weeks, many Pennsylvanians have had to turn to the internet to work from home, educate their children, seek medical care or apply for assistance and/or waivers from the state and federal government," she wrote in a co-sponsorship memo in April.
"We have heard from many individuals about the challenges this has posed," she wrote, "and they have asked for the digital divide to be closed sooner rather than later as high-speed internet is needed now during the COVID-19 pandemic more than ever in our history."
Snyder compared the expansion of broadband to bringing electricity to families in the 1930s.
One private-public partnership is happening in her area, with 65 miles of fiber optic planned after she had $200,000 in state funding approved and another $1 million in private funding added to jump start the project.
Snyder said the project, which will start in Morgantown, W.Va., and then traverse Greene and Washington counties, could give 2,200 homes access to broadband.
Snyder's House Bill 2055, introduced in November, would allow municipal authorities to build their own broadband networks, which, she said, would help small, rural areas ignored by large companies.
"If there is a silver lining in this pandemic," she said, "it's that high-speed broadband is on everyone's minds."
©2020 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.