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Pennsylvania Could Receive $100M to Expand Broadband

The massive infrastructure bill, if approved, could give the state $100 million for expanding its rural Internet and subsidize services, which would be significant for the nearly 20 percent of households without broadband.

(TNS) — The Landes family like living off the map. But they hate living offline.

Their home here in central Pennsylvania's Mifflin County is surrounded by lush green cornfields, with views of forests and mountains in the distance, but their connection to the internet has been a never-ending buffering wheel.

If 9-year-old Angel tried to play Minecraft while her twin brother, LJ, watched Trolls, both connections froze. During the school year, it was hard to keep up with virtual classes and LJ's speech therapy.

"It was just horrible," said Jason Landes, 43. "I called every internet provider, and everybody said, 'We cannot service that house.'"

Theirs is one of the only homes within a six-mile radius, and it just wasn't cost-effective for companies to build the necessary infrastructure. Until an upgrade last week, the Landeses were one of 29 percent of households in Mifflin County without access to high-speed internet, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates.

About one in five Pennsylvania households doesn't have a broadband internet subscription, with many rural counties having low coverage.

Now broadband could get a historic investment through the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress. Pennsylvania could receive $100 million to expand broadband infrastructure and subsidize service and devices for families who have access but can't afford it, such as low-income families in Philadelphia.

In rural areas, the issue is also structural — there simply isn't enough population density to incentivize setting up the pipes and towers needed.

The bill, which cleared the Senate with bipartisan support, faces an uncertain future in the House, where it's caught in broader partisan and intraparty fights.

For many people living without high-speed internet in rural areas, broadband access isn't a political issue. More money to get people online could significantly change lives.

But don't expect it to change political views.

"The digital divide doesn't care what party you're in or what area of the country you live in," said Amy Huffman, policy director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. "It impacts everyone and therefore it impacts all of our lawmakers, no matter what side of the aisle."

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The Landeses upgraded their connection through a new provider last week. It's working great, Jason Landes said. But he's not thinking about any politician or political party when he's watching NCIS or helping his kids video-call family.

"I'm not political," said Landes, who works at a cabinet-making company. "I don't vote. ... But if they're agreeing everybody should have internet, well, yeah, absolutely."

While there's some disagreement over how to pay for broadband and whether towns should provide their own public service, there's no disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about broadband's importance or finding ways to fund it.

"You're not going to, in a cost-effective way, lay fiber to every home, every farm, every community," said State Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre) the head of the Pennsylvania Senate, who has worked on the issue for years. "You have to identify a pot of money ... to help build a network with a provider."

The need to accelerate broadband expansion became even clearer during the pandemic. Students struggled to log on to remote classes from home, said Brice Clapp, who taught science at Mifflin County High School.

"Four kids are sharing one computer" or connection, he said. "And they couldn't all be online at the same time."

Clapp had trouble teaching from home, where his wife, a therapist, needed to see clients online. Their connection couldn't handle both of them at once, so he drove to the empty school to get online to teach.

Clapp said he'd been in a years-long battle trying to get high-speed broadband, "just begging people, basically saying, 'Look, I know we live out in the middle of nowhere, but I'll pay whatever you want for it.'"

A county over, George Hazard tried to keep his Juniata County winery afloat from a home office without a solid connection.

His four sons, ages 13 to 20, also struggled.

"When your kids — successful kids, hardworking kids — cannot do their homework or talk to their friends or watch television ... and you can't communicate with the rest of the world, it's a major, major problem," Hazard said.

Hazard benefited from a public-private partnership between the Juniata County Commissioners and SEDA-COG, an economic development organization, to help about 100 families get high-speed internet. The program was funded by more than $500,000 in state and federal dollars. Unlike the DSL services that often dropped connections, the provider the county used, Centre WISP, runs a fiber cable to fixed wireless towers that beam high-speed internet to customers for miles.

"The infrastructure bill is a great opportunity to continue what has been started here, to bring it to the last mile, so to speak," said Republican Juniata County Commissioner Alice Gray.

Local and state funding has recently ramped up, said David Gibbons, who owns Centre WISP. And if the infrastructure bill passes, it could reach unprecedented levels.

"What we're seeing right now creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity — very similar to building interstate highways or electrifying the country," Gibbons said. "But we need a significant amount of funding to deliver the kind of broadband that these areas need in a time frame that makes a difference."

When Centre WISP connected Hazard's family in May, their quality of life changed overnight. His sons could once again chat with friends. The family had fewer arguments over whose turn it was to go online.

More infrastructure money could mean more stories like his, which politicians are sure to use for political gain. Hazard doesn't think that will work ― not in Juniata County.

"We come from a very conservative area, and it's very rural, but infrastructure in general is not a political issue," Hazard said. "It doesn't matter who's in office, if your roads don't work, everybody's mad. If your internet doesn't work, everybody's mad."

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At the Juniata County Library, there's a wait list for the 25 hot spots the library lends people to take home. Others come in to go online, a trip Mark Kahler makes several times a week to listen to music and chat with friends on Facebook about politics.

"I'm a Trumper," said Kahler, a Navy veteran who lives in Lewistown. Former President Donald Trump also talked about broadband expansion, Kahler noted. So an infrastructure bill that could give him internet at home wouldn't change that view: "I'm all for that. But I'm not for Biden."

Kahler used to piggyback off a McDonald's signal near his house, but that hasn't worked for a while. Then he split the cost of broadband with his neighbor but found his decade-old laptop had trouble connecting.

For many people, it's not just a lack of access but an inability to afford the devices to get online. The infrastructure bill's $100 million includes money to subsidize laptops, iPads, and other devices, along with service costs.

Vincent Giordano, director of the library, hopes the funding helps an area where the population is declining in part, he thinks, because of lack of internet.

"It's an aging area, young people don't move here. People who come don't stay," Giordano said. "I think that also contributes to people staying set in their ways."

A few miles from the library, Darryl Best pulled over in his gold pickup truck to give directions to a lost reporter in Honey Grove. "There's no cell service here," he explained of the frozen GPS signal. Best said his internet isn't much better: "It was throwin' a fit this morning."

Best, 71, would love to see money trickle down to expand high-speed internet to where he lives. In these tree-covered hills and valleys, it's rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. He's already a fan of President Joe Biden, but he doesn't see the infrastructure bill shifting the views of his mostly conservative neighbors.

"People's minds [are] mostly made up," Best said. "Plus, who knows how long it takes to see that money. Things seem to work slowly around here."

In Pittsburgh, officials want to extend bus routes to connect more people with jobs in the city's core. In northwestern Pennsylvania, money for Great Lakes cleanups could boost port business and tourism on Lake Erie. In Philadelphia, more low-income families could get subsidies for faster internet. In South Jersey, tens of millions would help finish a seemingly endless project to connect three major highways.

Elected officials, advocacy groups, and transit agencies across Pennsylvania and New Jersey are already dreaming about the projects that could result from the Senate's $1 trillion infrastructure package. The plan, which passed the chamber in a bipartisan vote Tuesday, includes $550 billion in new money for items ranging from road and bridge repairs to airport upgrades, expanded broadband internet access, and public transportation.

"It's going to be one of those things that we look back on and say, 'This was the rebuilding of the United States during this time,'" said Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper.

The 2,700-page bill, representing one of President Joe Biden's top priorities, includes few specific projects.

Much of the money would be distributed based on funding formulas and competitive grants — the first big federal investment in so-called hard infrastructure in more than a decade, though still less than experts say is needed. But officials are already mapping out what they could use the aid for.

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Based on the formulas alone, Pennsylvania would see $11.3 billion for highway work, $1.6 billion for bridges — and $2.8 billion for public transit over five years, according to White House estimates. The bill could expand broadband access to 394,000 Pennsylvanians and subsidize 2.9 million more.

New Jersey would see $6.8 billion for highways, $1.1 billion for bridges, and $4.1 billion for public transit. Among the priorities: $72 million to help complete the $900 million project connecting I-295, I-76, and Route 42 in Camden County.

"It may double the amount of funding for infrastructure available to us over the next four to five years," said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, which is responsible for coordinating projects in Southeast Pennsylvania and South Jersey.

The commission estimates the region needs $150 billion over 30 years to restore its roads, fix deficient bridges, and expand transit service. "The new bill won't get us all the way there, but it's a positive step that will move projects forward," Seymour said.

The bill cleared the Senate in a 69-30 vote Tuesday afternoon, with support from 19 Republicans and all 50 members of the Democratic caucus. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), the Philadelphia region's only GOP senator, opposed the bill, calling it "too expensive, too expansive, too unpaid for." House Democrats hope to quickly approve it — though passage there could depend on also taking steps toward a larger, $3.5 trillion plan for social programs that satisfies progressives' demands. The outline of that package cleared its first procedural hurdle in the Senate in a party-line vote immediately after the bipartisan infrastructure vote.

Many Republicans worry so much spending could be wasteful and spur inflation.

"It's not an infrastructure bill," said one critic, Rep. Fred Keller (R., Pa.). "It's a bill that has a lot of things attached to it that have nothing to do with infrastructure."

Here are some of the ways Pennsylvania and New Jersey might put the money to use:

Roads, Highways, and Bridges

Pennsylvania officials anticipate getting $600 million to $650 million in new spending for highways and bridges for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Still, "there certainly are more [worthy] projects than there will be new money available," said Larry Shifflet, PennDot's deputy secretary for planning.

About 13 percent, or 4,217, of Pennsylvania bridges on state, local, and federal highways are in "poor"condition, PennDot says. And a state commission this month estimated an annual unmet need of $8.1 billion for highway repairs.

Locally, the bill could fund projects such as the $10.9 million replacement of two bridges around Quakertown, Bucks County — the Allentown Road Bridge over Licking Creek and the PA 633 Bridge over Umami Creek.


The bill would designate a minimum of about $100 million to help improve broadband access in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Different places face different challenges: Some areas have broadband available but residents struggle to pay for it, while in others broadband service just doesn't exist.

The bill funds both the expansion of pipes and wires needed to get people connected as well as subsidies for service and devices.

In Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the country, 23 percent of households didn't have an internet subscription as of 2019. This year, 37,000 residents received emergency broadband subsidies as part of the American Rescue Plan pandemic relief. The new bill extends that program.

"We're glad the federal government is on board," said Maari Porter, the city's deputy chief of staff for policy and strategic initiatives. "We've been banging that drum for some time."

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Amtrak would get $12 billion for new intercity service, including plans to connect Scranton, Reading, and Allentown to New York.

"We haven't had passenger rail in Northeastern Pennsylvania since the 1970s," said Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat whose district includes Scranton and the Poconos.

Cartwright said the route would help the region's many commuters to New York City. And in New Jersey, "they love the idea of getting Pennsylvania cars off their roadways," he said.

In Erie, Amtrak now makes just one stop a day and "basically shows up in the middle of the night," Dahlkemper said. But Amtrak has plans for new daytime service connecting the city to Cleveland and Buffalo.

There's also about $30 billion to upgrade Amtrak's Northeast Corridor line to increase speeds on the 457-mile Boston-to- Washington route. Philadelphia's 30th Street Station is the second busiest on the corridor, and officials anticipate the projects also will benefit New Jersey Transit and SEPTA, which both run on Amtrak tracks.

Public Transit

Federal funding will help rural and small city transit agencies, but, as is typical, the vast majority of Pennsylvania's $2.8 billion is expected to flow to SEPTA and the Port Authority of Allegheny County, which operates buses and a small subway serving Pittsburgh.

SEPTA has a backlog of infrastructure repair needs projected to cost $4.6 billion, including new train and trolley cars and buses.

In Allegheny County, Fitzgerald hopes expanded bus service will bring more residents within a ride of its tech sector and major research universities.

Environmental Cleanup

The bill includes $1 billion to fight pollution, algae blooms, and invasive species in Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes.

Both states might also benefit from $21 billion to clean up gas wells, Superfund sites, and abandoned mines. New Jersey has 114 Superfund sites, the most in the nation, and Pennsylvania has 287,000 acres of land "in need of reclamation," according to the state, at an estimated cost of more than $5 billion.


Drinking water would become safer as part of a $55 billion investment nationwide in projects such as eliminating lead service lines and pipes and cleaning up man-made contaminants.

That's a significant investment but won't eliminate all lead pipes, an effort Biden once quoted at $45 billion, three times more than what is allocated in the bill. Still, it's a step in the right direction, said Stephanie Wein, of Penn Environment, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.


Philadelphia officials hope to get some of the $25 billion allocated for airports to help a $1.2 billion Philadelphia International Airport effort to expand cargo capacity. The airport says the project would create 6,000 permanent jobs and 22,000 construction jobs and help it compete for more of the region's $53 billion of cargo traffic.

"The ability to invest in something with a significant [return on investment] I think speaks to the spirit of the bill," said Shane Doud, the airport's director of government affairs.

Doud also hopes some of the $5 billion for terminal upgrades can help replace outdated baggage equipment and reduce security checkpoint congestion.

Appalachian Regional Commission

Some of the funding targets rural areas struggling with the decline of the coal industry and opioid addiction. The Appalachian Regional Commission would receive $1 billion to continue giving grants for job training, education, economic development, and fighting substance abuse.

The agency covers parts of 13 states, including 52 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties. It's cochaired by Gayle Manchin, whose husband, Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.), is one of the bill's main authors.

In rural regions, she said, "we still have areas that don't have clean drinking water, that don't have a good sewer treatment plant, and those are not maybe the most popular things to talk about, but ... in this day and age we should all have clean drinking water." "type":"text

(c)2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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