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Pennsylvania Could Get $1.2B for Broadband If It Meets Deadline

The amount the state receives will rely on how many people have poor or no Internet access. But time is short to accurately collect the information. The planning grant deadline is Aug. 15.

(TNS) — Pennsylvania could receive $1.2 billion in federal money to expand Internet access to residents — 10 times more than early estimates — but the window for determining exactly how much the state gets is quickly closing.

Every U.S. state was promised at least $100 million in federal grants under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that was enacted in November. At a hearing Friday in Tioga County, Brandon Carson, the newly appointed executive director of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, said the actual amount Pennsylvania gets could be as high as $1.2 billion.

"The resources are going to be there," Mr. Carson said at a five-hour hearing in Wellsboro, which was sponsored by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a bipartisan legislative information committee. "We know we have a lot of needs here in our communities."

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocated $65 billion to extend Internet service to every American, with $45 billion earmarked for three grant programs. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration opened applications for this pool of money a week ago by soliciting proposals for planning grants ranging up to $5 million.

Aug. 15 is the deadline for planning grant applications, which Mr. Carson said the authority was pursuing.

Money from the federal legislation is expected to begin flowing to states in late 2023, Mr. Carson said, the same year the Federal Communications Commission is expected to release updated maps showing areas of the country with poor Internet service.

The FCC's maps have been wildly inaccurate in the past, severely underestimating the number of people who lack Internet access, according to Jeremy Jurick, national broadband services director at Michael Baker International.

"Let's prepare to challenge that national broadband map," Mr. Jurick said. "A successful challenge means more dollars that come into the state."

Exactly how much Pennsylvania gets for fiber, cable, tower construction and other broadband infrastructure hinges on how many people have poor or no access to the Internet.

Right now Western Pennsylvania counties have individually begun counting the number of residents with inadequate coverage, but a statewide accounting could use industry preferred methods to assure accuracy and ensure that Pennsylvania gets its fair share of broadband dollars, according to Penn State University telecommunications expert Sascha Meinrath.

"We are facing a dire crisis," Mr. Meinrath said at the hearing. "We haven't been preparing. Unless we have accurate maps, we'll be forgoing millions of dollars in federal funding."

Moreover, states like Michigan and Illinois that have done thorough, statewide surveys stand to benefit with higher federal broadband expansion awards than Pennsylvania, with its less reliable survey results — a misstep that would cost the state "billions of dollars in the next decade," he said.

A statewide survey of Internet availability using the best metrics, instead of a 67-county piecemeal approach, would cost less than $10 million, which would "more than pay for itself," Mr. Meinrath said. But such a survey would have to be done within six to 12 months, so time is running out.

"We have one more opportunity to more accurately and precisely document the haves and have nots," he said.

A statewide survey could involve legislation and allocation of funds by the General Assembly. Mr. Carson was unavailable to comment on whether the broadband authority would pursue this avenue.

Todd Eachus, president of the Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania, a trade group, worried about the possibility of fraud with so much grant money and a government mandate that improvements have to be done in five years after receiving the federal funds.

"It's a once-in-a-generation opportunity due to an awesome and impressive amount of money," he said. "The potential for waste, fraud and abuse is high."

Steven J. Samara, president of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association trade group agreed, saying, "$1.2 billion — you can waste that if you're not paying attention."

(c)2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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