(The Center Square) – The federal largesse that will fund broadband expansion in Pennsylvania has two major policy concerns: the potential economic growth from businesses and education using more broadband, and the threat of an opportunity missed due to the waste of federal funds.
According to industry experts, the key is to connect unserved parts of Pennsylvania to the rest of the Commonwealth.
“At the end of the day, it’s absolutely correct that the need is to make sure there’s a laser focus…to tackle those really unserved areas first, and any funding should be prioritized towards that,” said Todd Eachus, president of Broadband. Pennsylvania Communications Association. The BCAPA is a professional group that primarily represents the cable industry.
The unserved areas, and where the challenge lies in expanding access, are predominantly rural; suburban and urban areas in Pennsylvania are already “well serviced,” Eachus said. In rural areas, access to broadband is first and foremost the problem. In suburbs and cities, adoption by individual households is the biggest problem.
The magnitude of the money flows is significant.
The federal Broadband Access, Equity and Development Program will send more than $42 billion to state governments. Another bucket of federal money from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will provide $65 billion to states, like The Center Square Previously reported. Pennsylvania expects to raise at least $1 billion for broadband expansion from federal dollars alone.
While broadband access in rural areas is a challenge, it is also an opportunity. The importance of the agricultural sector in rural Pennsylvania means that making technology easier to use outside of population centers could boost the rural economy.
“The technology applies to the agricultural sector and it is important to get services even in the most rural areas,” Eachus said. “You have to be able to compete in this global economy, and that requires a broadband connection. The laser must focus on these rural areas.
Broadband would be a key part of reviving the rural economy, while reducing business taxes and attracting more people to move to Pennsylvania.
“By reducing the corporate net income tax, things like that, we’re starting to turn the tide, and maybe the state will start to grow in population and become more attractive for businesses to quote, and come in Pennsylvania from a tax advantage perspective,” Eachus said. “We have a huge opportunity with the new tax structure to grow Pennsylvania and turn the tide.”
Whether this opportunity is wasted may depend on the effectiveness of local and state government agencies. If localities and broadband developers don’t work together, problems will arise and tensions will erupt.
For example, if federal funding reaches a city to pave a road, and then broadband money comes in to install broadband, it could ruin the job that was just completed.
The underground space is a tough space where both sides have merit, Eachus said. Localities do not want streets to be cut after paving work has been done, and a moratorium on street cutting can cause problems in expanding access.
A lack of coordination would then lead to a waste of taxpayers’ money.
“Anytime there’s a lot of federal money flowing, there’s inherent risk in implementation,” Eachus said. There are administrative challenges to successful broadband expansion. “Like honey, lots of free federal money attracts flies.”