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Pennsylvania Marks Thousands of Gaps on FCC Broadband Map

Counties across the state have been challenging the accuracy of the federal Internet expansion map ahead of a Friday deadline. Westmoreland County alone identified 14,527 sites that don’t appear at all on the address maps.

(TNS) — Time's running out for local governments to make their last pitches for a bonanza in federal Internet expansion funding.

Challenges to the Federal Communications Commission address maps and broadband availability in the U.S. are due Friday, Jan. 13.

Pennsylvania counties have been mounting challenges to the accuracy of the maps so they get a fair share of $42.45 billion in federal Broadband Equity Access and Deployment money. The funds will be used to bring the digital age to people with service that crawls or who don't yet have Internet access.

Most of southwestern Pennsylvania has Internet download speeds that are half or less the minimum required speeds to be eligible for the new federal grants, according to a survey by the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission, Allies for Children and Carnegie Mellon University of 3,445 homes and businesses in the 10-county region around Pittsburgh.

Some 36,000 homes and 15,000 businesses were not connected at all and monthly fees for more than 87 percent of those with Internet service exceed $75 a month — 17 percent higher than the average monthly charge of $64 nationally.

Distribution of the money by the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration is scheduled to begin in June, with each state getting a minimum of $100 million. Grants will be awarded to states with the poorest access to the Internet first, said Brandon Carson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, which will channel the federal funding to counties.

"Pennsylvania's allocation will depend directly on the number of unserved addresses in the Commonwealth," Mr. Carson said. "Every address that is unserved means additional funding will be coming to Pennsylvania."

The state anticipates filing a "significant number" of challenges to the FCC by Friday, but the broadband authority was continuing to receive information from counties on Wednesday, so a total number of challenges was not available, Mr. Carson said.

The broadband authority's challenges will include survey information gathered in Beaver, Westmoreland, Washington and other counties throughout the state. Counties can challenge either the address locations shown on the FCC maps or the availability of broadband availability indicated at each site, said Jeremy Jurick, national broadband services director at Michael Baker International who serves as a consultant to counties.

Counties should continue to file FCC challenges, even after Friday, Mr. Jurick said.

"Even in April, it'll help get service to those locations," he said. "We want to continue to turn over every rock to look for unserved areas."

In Westmoreland County, officials identified 14,527 sites that don't appear at all on the FCC's address maps, or 8 percent of the total 175,251 address points in the county. Using survey results that a consultant helped put together, the county also questioned 1,013 sites the FCC map indicated had speedy Internet access when the county found they had no service.

Westmoreland County, working with consultant Michael Baker, filed its FCC challenges last week, county Department of Planning and Development Planner Corey Block said.

On Monday, Westmoreland's neighbor to the west, Washington County, filed its challenges, targeting 617 sites, including 19 places that FCC maps indicated were served by broadband but the county determined were not.

Counties are continuing to urge residents to test their Internet speed and availability, said John Timney, executive director of the Washington County Authority, which is overseeing local Internet expansion efforts.

"Evangelism — Linkedin, social media — we're shouting out that we have this open survey," he said. "It's still being done by hand."

Counties were given less than two months to conduct surveys and submit challenges to the FCC map, which proved a tall order in hiring consultants and surveying Internet availability. On Monday, Fayette County officials were still encouraging residents to complete the county's broadband survey. So far, nearly 1,000 surveys were completed.

"We want to give everyone access to broadband that is worth using, both financially and efficiently," Fayette County Economic Development Coordinator Mark Rafail said in a prepared statement.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, was scheduled to begin making awards to areas that are most poorly served by broadband from a pot of $42.45 billion, which came from the $63.2 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.

(c)2023 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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