Pennsylvania Laws Aim to Expand Broadband

A pair of broadband bills in Pennsylvania (one of which has been signed into law by the governor, and the other having passed one chamber) represent a collective step forward for broadband by updating regulations and establishing a broadband grant program so as to promote network expansion in rural and unserved parts of the state of Pennsylvania.

Fewer Restrictions, More Money

The first is House Bill 2438 [pdf], which allows electric cooperatives to use existing easements for an affiliate to deliver broadband service without re-negotiating with property owners. The bill also allows cable companies to use cooperative-owned poles with permission and in accordance with existing rates and regulations. It’s designed to make it faster, cheaper, and easier to bring Internet access to rural parts of the state. 

Johnstown Area Regional Industries entrepreneurial coach Blake Fleegle said of the legislation

Every county in our region is looking at bringing high-dollar earners to our region. Employers are finding people can be just as effective working in Johnstown as they would be in Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh. But they need to connect, and that's where broadband comes into play.

Chad Carrick, President and CEO of REA Energy Cooperative, likewise welcomed the legislation while emphasizing the role electric co-ops will play in the state: 

It may be hard for some to believe, but there is a good 40% of Indiana and Cambria counties that either don't have broadband Internet access or it's not up to snuff, according to our surveys to our membership.

2438 passed the state House in June, the Senate at the end of October, and was signed into law by the governor at the end of last month. 

The second is Senate Bill 835 [pdf], titled the “Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Pilot Program Act.” SB 835 establishes a broadband grant program to fund projects in rural, unserved parts of Pennsylvania. It creates a $5 million fund which would be administered by the Commonwealth Financing Authority, with applicants judged and funds awarded by the Department of Community and Economic Development of the Commonwealth and the Governor's Office of Broadband Initiatives.  

SB 835 looks to fund projects delivering 25/3 Mbps (Megabits per second) in areas where it doesn’t already exist, with grantees responsible for a 25% match. Importantly, both electric cooperatives (through broadband affiliates) and private providers are eligible to compete. Award applications, if the bill passes, would be scored according to project size and proportion of private match, among other things. And while no preference will be given to buildouts promising faster speeds, the language does allow applicants to bid for specific portions of census blocks — a good move, given how the FCC collects and aggregates broadband availability data — which will both allow broadband providers to target builds with more granularity but also bring service to households trapped in service blocks where incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) claim service by connecting just one premises. SB 835 passed the state Senate unanimously on in early September, and is currently referred to Appropriations Committee in the House. 

Positive Steps

Like many states, unserved parts of Pennsylvania face challenges in the form of sparse population and topography. Some communities have given up on waiting for the existing marketplace to solve their Internet access issues, with one group building fixed wireless towers to deliver service to cooperative members in Big Valley. HB 2438 in particular represents a welcome step forward in expanding the terms under which electric cooperatives can build broadband infrastructure. 

As it stands, municipalities in Pennsylvania are barred from providing telecommunications services in most instances. Restrictions like these would be eliminated under the Community Broadband provision of HR 2 (the “Moving Forward Act”), which was passed by the House in the beginning of July and currently sits in the Senate. Eliminating these state preemptions has long been a project of U.S. Representative Anna Eshoo, who has been trying for years to pass federal legislation to overturn state preemption laws that hurt broadband expansion.