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The city of Scranton, Pennsylvania has issued a request for qualifications (RFQ) for vendors that may be tasked with constructing an affordable citywide fiber network. City leaders say the RFQ is the opening chapter in a bid to bring affordable broadband access to city residents long neglected by dominant regional monopolies.
According to the full RFQ, officials are looking for partner companies capable of building a citywide network capable of providing 1 Gbps (gigabit per second) download and upload speeds to all premises in the City of Scranton, as well as expanded fiber access for city municipal services and key anchor institutions.
“The City does not require municipal ownership of the fiber or a City operational role,” the RFQ states. “However, the City does request connectivity to certain City sites, a 40-year indefeasible right of use (IRU) for 12 strands of fiber for municipal noncommercial purposes throughout the network, and an access and maintenance agreement governing these strands.”
As with so many U.S. markets, broadband competition in Scranton is hard to come by. The market is largely dominated by either Comcast Xfinity or Verizon, the latter of which has been heavily criticized by unions and consumer groups for failing to uniformly upgrade its aging DSL network to fiber, and failing to repair aging lines on a timely basis.
This lack of meaningful competition results in slow broadband speeds, spotty coverage, substandard customer service, and significantly higher prices. Even then, the city hasn’t been without signs of life in the marketplace.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania has revitalized the city’s long percolating plan for a municipal broadband network, this time via a public-private partnership (PPP) with Shenandoah Telecommunications Company (Shentel). The city’s quest for more affordable, reliable broadband is a quest that’s taken the better part of a decade to finally come to fruition.
Lancaster city officials recently announced that they’d selected Shentel with an eye on ensuring uniform broadband availability to the city of 57,000.
“In 2022, the City issued an RFP for a partner to achieve stated goals, which received five responses, and led to the selection of Shentel,” the city said. “The contract will result in Shentel installing fiber at its sole cost to provide service to 100% of the city’s residents. Shentel plans to commence design and construction immediately upon execution of the final agreement.”
According to Lancaster officials, the city hired CTC Technology & Energy Engineering & Business Consulting to evaluate the city’s needs. The determination to proceed with a PPP with Shental was driven, in part, by the historic broadband grant opportunities being created thanks to the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), and the American Rescue Plan Act, the latter of which provided $39.5 million to the city.
As the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) continues to move forward in administering the single biggest federal investment to expand high-speed Internet access in U.S. history, each state and U.S. territory is wrestling with how to best spend the windfall as they lay out their Five Year Action Plans and Initial Proposals necessary to claim their portion of the $42.5 billion BEAD program.
One major barrier to providing universal access to fast, reliable and affordable Internet service–long recognized by ILSR, telecom experts, and a growing number of ordinary citizens–are the monopoly-friendly preemption laws that either outright ban or erect insurmountable barriers to building publicly-owned, locally-controlled broadband networks, aka municipal broadband.
Preemption in the BEAD Era
Currently, 17 states have such preemption laws, most of which have filed their Five Year Action Plans and/or their Initial Proposals. In each of those states, at the behest of Big Cable and Telecom incumbents, state lawmakers have erected legislative barriers to municipal broadband to protect the monopoly players from competition, which is at the very heart of why the digital divide exists in the first place and why tens of millions of Americans suffer from the slower speeds and higher costs that go hand in hand with monopoly service.
This week on the show, Christopher is joined once again by Sean Gonsalves, Associate Director for Communications for the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. After a short stop to talk about the establishment of a new municipal network in Timnath, Colorado, Christopher and Sean get down to talking about the BEAD 5-Year Plans that states are filing with NTIA to get their hands on the first tranche of what will be an historic pot of federal funds for new broadband investment.
Some states, like Maine and Vermont, Sean shares, are doing lots right: setting high bars for new infrastructure, listening to communities about their needs, folding in digital equity initiatives, and thinking about how to reach the last households that BEAD will fall short of. Others, like Pennsylvania, seem written with the intent to waste public money and leaves tens of thousands of households stranded with poor or no service - in other words, exactly what the monopoly cable and telephone companies want.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
The U.S. Treasury Department recently awarded more than $740 million in new American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funding to the states of California and Pennsylvania, providing a major boon to both states’ efforts to expand access to affordable broadband.
The Treasury awarded $540.2 million for high-speed Internet expansion projects in California under the American Rescue Plan’s Capital Projects Fund (CPF). According to the announcement, the funds will be used to connect 127,000 homes and businesses across California as part of the state’s ongoing “California Comeback Plan.”
As part of that effort, California leaders say they’ll spend $7 billion on expanding broadband access over the next three years, with $4 billion of that to be used for constructing a statewide middle-mile, open access fiber network the state hopes will boost broadband competition and drive down broadband access costs statewide.
To manage federal grant funds, California created its Last Mile Broadband Expansion grant program, which was designed to provide Internet access to areas of the state currently lacking access to reliable, affordable broadband at the FCC’s increasingly dated definition of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream, 3 Mbps upstream.
“The pandemic upended life as we knew it and exposed the stark inequity in access to affordable and reliable high-speed internet in communities across the country, including rural, Tribal, and other underrepresented communities,” said Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo.
“This funding is a key piece of the Biden-Harris Administration’s historic investments to increase access to high-speed internet for millions of Americans and provide more opportunities to fully participate and compete in the 21st century economy,” Adeyemo added.
A bipartisan coalition of Pennsylvania lawmakers have introduced legislation that attempts to reverse some of the state’s most-stringent provisions hamstringing municipal broadband builds.
But experts suggest that while the bill may be well-intentioned, a cleaner approach would be to eliminate the state’s harmful and dated restrictions on municipal broadband entirely.
As it currently stands, Pennsylvania law prohibits municipalities from providing broadband to state residents for money, unless existing telecom providers don’t currently provide broadband access at the address, and those providers claim they’re willing to do so sometime within 14 months of being asked.
As voters went to the polls yesterday, broadband-focused initiatives and candidates could be found up and down the ballot all across the country.
Alabama voters cast their ballots to decide on a state Constitutional amendment known as the Broadband Internet Infrastructure Funding Amendment. The measure sought to amend the state's constitution "to allow local governments to use funding provided for broadband internet infrastructure under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and award such funds to public or private entities."
That measure passed, garnering a “Yes” vote from nearly 80 percent of Alabama voters. With 73 percent of the vote counted late last night, 922,145 “Yes” votes had been tallied with 251,441 “No” votes.
Also in Alabama, Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell won her re-election bid to represent Alabama’s 7th congressional district. Sewell, whose district covers a large swath of the Alabama Black Belt, “spent much of her past two years in office bringing American Rescue Plan Act funds to rural Alabama, dedicated to healthcare, broadband access and infrastructure building,” as noted by The Montgomery Advertiser.
The Centennial State is not listed as one of 17 states in the nation with preemption laws that erect barriers to municipal broadband because nearly every community that had a vote has passed it to nullify it. But more communities had to go through that unnecessary process yesterday due to the law known as SB-152 that bans local governments in the state from establishing municipal broadband service absent a referendum.
In late August, Warren County Commissioners in northwest Pennsylvania issued a RFP that sought to establish a public-private partnership to bring high-speed Internet connectivity to rural parts of the county near the Allegheny National Forest and River.
County officials are now reviewing proposals for a plan to “design, engineer, procure, install, operate, manage, and maintain high speed Internet to connect and serve the underserved rural areas of the county.” The initiative is part of the county Broadband Task Force’s effort to close the digital divide in a region that is nearly 900 square miles and home to 40,000 residents.
The RFP calls for three required outcomes:
- High-speed Internet access for the fire departments in Garland, Wrightsville, Sugar Grove, Spring Creek, and Spartansburg.
- Wireless or wireline connectivity to businesses and residential households in Garland, Wrightsville, Sugar Grove, Spring Creek, and Spartansburg communities.
- Offer “no cost service” to municipal entities in the county.
And while the RFP does not specifically require wireless network proposals, the RFP puts its thumb on the scale in favor of proposals that detail a “Primary Wireless Solution.”
The county would own the infrastructure for three years and, during that time, the Internet service provider who wins the bid will pay a rights-of-way agreement for the network, and will be responsible for the management and maintenance of the network. The county is also willing to provide access to its vertical assets to enable the deployment of wireless technology.
The RFP does not specify required subscription costs or low cost options for subscribers but does ask applicants to provide a five-year customer rate table and specifies that they are looking for a project that is beneficial to all parties, including the residents.
For the past two years, York County, Pennsylvania (est. pop. 459,000) has been working hard on a multi-part plan to connect both rural and urban areas.
York began laying out plans for a county-owned middle-mile network in 2020. The idea was to make last-mile hookups viable for private providers in more areas of the county, and to close its major connectivity gaps.
Along with these plans, York launched a middle-mile pilot project along a 16-mile stretch of the York Heritage Rail Trail, which runs from the York metropolitan area in the center of the county down to Pennsylvania’s southern border. The project leveraged $1.5 million in CARES Act funding and a length of conduit that had been lying underneath the rail trail for two decades. The fiber that was deployed currently provides middle-mile capacity throughout the south central part of the county, as well as some wireless coverage from a tower at the stretch’s midpoint in Hanover Junction.
Building Beyond the Pilot
In early 2021, it was left to the YoCo Fiber Broadband Task Force, “led by the York County Economic Alliance and composed of representatives from business, government, health care, education, and other sectors,” to recommend to the county a way to “develop and implement a countywide broadband strategy.”
In July of that year, the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to spend as much as $25 million of its American Rescue Plan money, under the guidance of the task force. The first $20 million was dedicated to building out the first half of an underground middle-mile network throughout southern York County, which was designed to “connect anchor institutions and build redundancy.”
Once a booming center of manufacturing, Allentown, PA (pop. 120,900) is looking to reinvigorate its economy by reinventing itself as a modern 21st century “smart city,” bringing fiber-to-the-home Internet connectivity to every resident in the city.
In October, the city proposed using $7 million of its $57 million in American Rescue Act Funds to aid in the deployment of a citywide FTTH network. City leaders hope the investment will help them reach the goal outlined in its strategic economic development plan to become a smart city by 2030.
The city will work with Iota Communications to conduct a feasibility study they hope will be complete in the coming months. While the possibility of a FTTH network is in the early stages for the city, the proposal signals a serious ambition to bridge the digital divide in the region.
Feeling The Way Forward
Allentown is one of three cities that make up a larger geographic area known as Lehigh Valley, with the other cities being Easton (pop. 27,000) and Bethlehem (pop. 75,500). For a while now, leaders in the valley have been talking about the digital divide and it’s been made clear with the pandemic that it can no longer be put on the backburner.
Pennsylvania lawmakers passed a law 2019 clearing the way for municipalities to have more of a say in how 5G is deployed in their communities. And while many local officials say the new law will help pave the way for Allentown to stay ahead of the curve, some have cautioned that a focus on 5G is a major distraction.