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Obstacles abound as Pa. plans for surge of federal broadband funding

More than $1 billion in federal funds are coming to Pa. to expand rural broadband but hurdles remain.

Obstacles abound as Pa. plans for surge of federal broadband funding

IMAGE: In parts of rural Pennsylvania where internet speeds lag, some local governments are building their own broadband networks.

Charlotte Keith of Spotlight PA

This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

HARRISBURG — In the coming years, Pennsylvania will receive more than $1 billion in federal funding to bring high-speed internet access to everyone in the state.

It’s a historic opportunity and a serious challenge, according to a new plan from the state Broadband Development Authority that outlines how it will accomplish that goal over the next five years.

The money comes from the wide-ranging bipartisan infrastructure bill signed into law by President Joe Biden in 2021. Pennsylvania will also receive an estimated $900 million for broadband from other federal programs and private investment required as a condition of grant funding.

Here are five obstacles Pennsylvania will have to navigate as it spends the money, according to the authority’s plan:

Workforce shortages

Engineers. Technicians. Electricians. Surveyors. Laborers.

Pennsylvania will need an estimated 117,000 workers to build new broadband networks. The state’s plan details how low unemployment and a tight labor market could make finding them a challenge. In July, internet service providers told the state broadband authority they were having difficulty hiring and keeping workers “due to intense competition, training prerequisites, and the industry’s unique technical demands.” Pennsylvania needs “rapid support” from training programs, the plan says.

Supply chain problems

Although the global supply chain is rebounding after the disruptions of the pandemic, problems remain, the state plan notes. Difficulty obtaining electrical components and high-tech chips could delay projects and drive up costs. Additionally, demand will surge as all 50 states give out grants to build new networks on roughly the same schedule. A federal law that requires all construction materials for infrastructure projects be produced in the U.S. will also limit the available supplies.

Permits

The huge broadband buildout will require a vast number of permits from Pennsylvania’s more than 2,600 municipalities and differences in the way they process them could add costs and slow projects down.

The Broadband Development Authority suggests the state consider paying for temporary staff to help local governments handle permits. Pennsylvania’s plan also argues that establishing a statewide permitting standard would make the process more efficient.

The cost of an internet subscription

Bringing broadband to everyone in the commonwealth won’t improve residents’ lives if the service is too expensive, the Broadband Development Authority warns. As part of an ongoing statewide survey, 56% of respondents said the cost of a subscription was a challenge. Just over half said paying their monthly internet bill was either “somewhat” or “very” difficult.

Exactly what Pennsylvania could require from internet service providers in exchange for grant dollars is still being decided.

The state could mandate that companies receiving grant funds participate in a federal program that gives low-income households discounts of up to $30 per month on their internet bills. In Pennsylvania, however, less than a third of eligible households were enrolled in the program as of July. It is also projected to run out of money next year unless Congress increases its funding.

Limited competition among providers

More than half the responses to the state survey said residents had no choice of internet service provider. A lack of competition can result in higher prices, the plan notes.

Federal rules limit states’ ability to use grant funding to increase competition in areas that already have high-speed internet. But the plan says that when scoring grant proposals, Pennsylvania “may prioritize” companies that “bring competition into the market statewide” by offering a chance for small local companies to grow.

This plan doesn’t spell out how Pennsylvania will evaluate grant proposals and choose which ultimately receive funding. That will come in another document which must be submitted to the federal government by late December.

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