January 16, 2024

Advancing Our Rural Connectivity

In an era where the digital landscape continues to shape the way we communicate, work, and access essential services, it has become glaringly evident that internet access is no longer a luxury, but a fundamental necessity of modern life. The importance of extending reliable internet access to unserved and underserved rural regions cannot be overstated, as it is fundamental to fostering economic growth, educational opportunities, and improved quality of life for the residents.

Recognizing this critical need, Representative Irvin invited the Policy Committee to his district in Huntingdon County to deliberate on the intricacies of regional hurdles to rural connectivity.

The testifiers that joined the Policy Committee were as follows:

Community Connectivity Panel:

Hon. Jeff Thomas – President and Chairman, Alleghenies Broadband, Inc., and Huntingdon County Commissioner

David L. Smead, Jr. – Fire Chief, Shavers Creek Valley Community Volunteer Fire Company

Questions for Community Connectivity Panel

Broadband Connectivity Panel:

Dwight Rittenhouse – Board Member, Rural Broadband Cooperative

Rachel Papuga – Project Manager, Alleghenies Broadband, Inc.

Brandon Carson – Executive Director, PA Broadband Development Authority

Todd L. Eachus – President, Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania

Questions for the Broadband Connectivity Panel

Agenda, Bios, & Testimony

Community Connectivity

The Honorable Jeff Thomas, President and Chairman of Alleghenies Broadband, Inc., and Huntingdon County Commissioner, started off the hearing by emphasizing how the substantial lack of internet access in rural areas severely restricts the capabilities of families, schools, and businesses.

The county had recognized this problem prior to the COVID pandemic, and their proactive approach to broadband expansion enabled them to quickly qualify for federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Drawing inspiration from successful broadband expansion models in states like Vermont and New Hampshire, where similar geographic challenges were overcome to provide gold-standard fiber optic infrastructure to remote regions, the county questioned why similar progress wasn’t being made in Pennsylvania.

Commissioner Thomas outlined challenges faced, notably the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began granting awards directly to internet providers. This competition led to the descoping of the anticipated CARES and ARPA projects, resulting in a reduction in the number of planned towers from 12 to 6. Additionally, providers have opted to utilize the FCC funds for improving service in existing, more populated areas rather than expanding into unserved or underserved regions. Concerns were raised about the need for increased oversight to ensure that grant money is directed towards addressing the specific needs of rural areas. Commissioner Thomas emphasized that excessive regulations, including extensive surveying and reporting requirements, pose significant, prohibitive challenges for smaller entities seeking grants.

Furthermore, regulatory hurdles, permitting delays, and difficulties accessing state and federal lands were identified as significant obstacles impeding the efficient deployment of broadband infrastructure. The committee was urged to prioritize streamlining regulations and facilitating access to funding, especially for smaller providers, as essential measures to address the persistent broadband gap in rural areas.

“The goal of Huntingdon County and the surrounding six counties is the same as yours: broadband to everyone.”

The Honorable Jeff Thomas
President and Chairman, Alleghenies Broadband, Inc., Huntingdon County Commissioner

David L. Smead, Jr., Fire Chief for the Shavers Creek Valley Community Volunteer Fire Company, highlighted the impact of outdated and unreliable internet services on our emergency responders. Chief Smead emphasized that many of the new technologies crucial for emergency services are cloud-based, demanding a robust and dependable internet connection. However, the existing situation leaves emergency services unable to invest in advanced tools like map markup apps and Electric Vehicle (EV) apps.

Given the rapid evolution of EVs, with new components and varying designs across EV brands, EV apps provide critical information about the specific characteristics of the EV, such as the locations of high-voltage components, shut off procedures, and emergency protocols. Without updated information from an EV app, extricating a patient from a high-voltage vehicle becomes extremely dangerous for the emergency responders, as they will not know where it is safe to cut the vehicle to extricate the passenger.

Chief Smead shed light on the current dependency on an antiquated, weather-dependent DSL service, provided by a single provider, offering sluggish speeds of merely 3 Mbps (the recommended internet speed to enable work from home is 50-100 Mbps). The infrastructure supporting this service was described as degrading, resulting in unreliability that severely hampers the ability of first responders to perform their duties effectively. This limitation poses a significant risk to public safety and necessitates urgent action.

To address these challenges, Chief Smead proposed the deployment of alternative technologies, specifically advocating for cable internet as a faster and more reliable connectivity solution in the area. The potential benefits highlighted included improvements in emergency response times and capabilities, emphasizing the critical role that modern and dependable broadband infrastructure plays in ensuring the effectiveness of emergency services in rural areas.

“The use of an iPad or similar device for marking up maps to assist in search for a lost person are great tools…but without a broadband connection to load maps, they are not worth the investment.”

David L. Smead, Jr.
Fire Chief, Shavers Creek Valley Community Volunteer Fire Company

Broadband Connectivity

Dwight Rittenhouse, a board member for the Rural Broadband Cooperative (RBC), shed light on their commitment to provide reliable and affordable "fixed wireless" broadband internet service to remote areas, including off-grid locations, where 450 members currently benefit from their services. An integral aspect of RBC's strategy involves addressing the cost-prohibitive nature of leasing towers, ranging from $1,200 to $1,500 per month. Instead, the cooperative has opted for an innovative solution by repurposing and utilizing donated towers to transmit signals from fiber cuts to antennas situated closer to homes.

Mr. Rittenhouse delved into the intricacies of RBC's approach, emphasizing the deployment of signals from shorter poles, typically ranging from 12 to 15 feet, strategically positioned around communities. This tactic aims to overcome topographical challenges and avoid signal interference, ensuring a more reliable and consistent broadband experience for users in these remote areas. The non-profit cooperative model employed by RBC was also highlighted as an essential component to their success, as it incentivizes customer participation, contributing to the expansion of the network and allowing for rate reductions.

The broader discussion touched upon the need for an efficient and effective utilization of grant money to expand broadband coverage in unserved and underserved areas. Concerns were raised about certain providers contributing to oversaturation in specific regions, while other areas remain without any service at all. This observation prompted a call for more strategic distribution of resources to address the digital divide more comprehensively.

Mr. Rittenhouse notably highlighted RBC's collaboration with fiber companies, exemplified by their partnership with Jackson Broadband. This collaboration was emphasized as critical, particularly in reaching customers in areas where running fiber is not economically feasible, as it enables Jackson Broadband to extend the reach of their fiber without the need to run physical transmission lines. The cooperative's approach showcases the importance of fostering partnerships between different entities within the broadband ecosystem to ensure a more inclusive and efficient expansion of internet services in rural and remote regions.

“Our process is cost efficient and delivers effective internet connection to our most rural homes and businesses.”

Dwight Rittenhouse
Board Member, Rural Broadband Cooperative

Rachel Papuga, Project Manager for Alleghenies Broadband, Inc. (ABI), outlined their strategic focus on developing broadband infrastructure in the Southern Alleghenies region. ABI emphasized the importance of collaboration with various stakeholders, including Internet Service Providers (ISPs), rural electric cooperatives, local governments, and community partners, as integral to their approach.

Ms. Papuga underscored the multifaceted challenges faced in deployment, including an aging population, low broadband adoption rates, and obstacles such as permitting delays and limited access to public lands. To address these challenges, ABI stressed the need for digital skills education, particularly targeting older residents, to bridge the technology use gap. This is essential for ensuring access to reliable internet service, telehealth options, and maintaining family connections in the increasingly digital age.

Partnerships emerged as a key theme, with ABI recommending collaboration with existing pole owners to address permitting obstacles and reduce barriers for ISPs seeking to expand networks. Ms. Papuga also proposed the implementation of dig-once and open-trench policies as effective measures to reduce construction costs, encourage efficient street cuts, and foster county-wide collaboration, ultimately streamlining the broadband expansion process. “Dig once” policies involve coordinating infrastructure projects to install conduits or other utilities simultaneously, minimizing disruptions by avoiding repetitive excavations, while “open trench” policies refer to the practice of leaving utility trenches open for future use, allowing cost-effective additions or modifications to infrastructure without the need for extensive excavation.

A crucial recommendation put forth by ABI was the creation of a streamlined broadband infrastructure policy in Pennsylvania. This policy, according to Ms. Papuga, should strike a balance between the public land mission and accessibility for telecommunications infrastructure construction. Such a policy, if enacted, could significantly ease and expedite the expansion of broadband, ensuring that the benefits of reliable internet access reach all corners of the state.

“Closing the broadband adoption gap should be a priority for community leaders.”

Rachel Papuga
Project Manager, Alleghenies Broadband, Inc.

Brandon Carson, Executive Director for the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA), commenced with a stark reminder that over 290,000 locations in the state lack access to reliable, high-speed internet service. Of particular concern was the disproportionate impact on rural communities; although only constituting 26% of Pennsylvania's residents, rural areas accounted for over 81% of the locations without internet access.

Addressing this digital divide, Mr. Carson emphasized the substantial resources available, with Pennsylvania being allocated nearly $1.5 billion through the federal ARPA and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). These funds are earmarked primarily for the deployment of affordable, high-speed internet through fixed terrestrial broadband services, representing a significant opportunity to bridge the connectivity gap.

Mr. Carson outlined PBDA’s proactive approach to facilitate broadband expansion. The development of a "Broadband Ready Communities" program is underway, aiming to assist local governments in navigating procedural, policy, and permitting barriers that often impede swift broadband deployment.

Recognizing the impending deficit in skilled workers, such as linemen, equipment operators, mechanics, and engineers, as crucial to the expansion efforts, Mr. Carson outlined collaborative efforts with the Department of Labor & Industry, apprenticeship programs, and on-the-job training opportunities. This multi-faceted approach seeks to address not only the digital gap, but also potential workforce challenges associated with the expansion of broadband services.

The importance of collaboration with industry partners was underscored as critical in navigating potential supply chain shortages for construction materials and equipment. This strategic alliance is anticipated to enhance resilience against challenges that could impede the timely implementation of broadband infrastructure projects.

Federal funds will be distributed through competitive grants programs over the next two years, with additional funds anticipated to address digital equity initiatives. Mr. Carson highlighted that PBDA’s strategies and federal funding proposals are being finalized, taking into account valuable input from residents, elected officials, and community leaders. This inclusive approach ensures that the proposed solutions are tailored to the specific needs and challenges faced by the communities in Pennsylvania.

“Our team has traveled throughout the Commonwealth to meet with residents, local elected officials, and community leaders to better understand the specific needs and concerns related to expanding broadband and digital literacy.”

Brandon Carson
Executive Director, PA Broadband Development Authority

Todd L. Eachus, President of the Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania (BCAP), emphasized the extraordinary opportunity that $1.5 billion in federal broadband funding represents for Pennsylvania. This funding was framed as a one-time opportunity to connect every resident in the state, making the stakes for efficient and impactful deployment particularly high.

Mr. Eachus expressed concerns regarding affordability requirements and high labor costs associated with the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program. The BEAD program is the $42.45 billion in federal funds set aside in the IIJA for broadband expansion planning, infrastructure deployment, and broadband adoption. He noted that PBDA’s proposal to determine rates by income to ensure middle-class affordability potentially contradicts federal legislation prohibiting rate regulation, raising a crucial regulatory challenge that needed careful consideration. Furthermore, imposing mandated affordability requirements discourages deployment into risky, uneconomic areas, jeopardizing the goal of reaching every Pennsylvanian.

Mr. Eachus noted the additional obstacle of high labor costs, approximately $90 per hour, without job classifications and wage determinations specific to broadband work. The lack of tailored parameters for broadband-related labor could inflate project costs by at least 30% with employers forced to pay salaries above current norms, posing a substantial risk to the success of the broadband expansion initiative.

Overall, unsustainable affordability prices and high labor costs disincentivizes broadband providers to participate in the BEAD program, particularly when the 25% funding match requirement is taken into consideration. Mr. Eachus emphasized the necessity for meticulous planning and alignment with federal regulations to ensure that the allocated funds are utilized optimally, effectively addressing the broadband needs of all residents in Pennsylvania.

“In order to succeed, every effort must be taken to deploy these federal tax dollars as efficiently and judiciously as possible.”

Todd L. Eachus
President, Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania

In conclusion, the testimony presented during the committee hearing vividly illustrates the critical need for timely and comprehensive rural broadband expansion. From innovative approaches by cooperatives like the Rural Broadband Cooperative (RBC) to the strategic initiatives led by the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA), the overarching theme is clear – reliable and high-speed internet access is not just a convenience but a fundamental requirement for communities. The testimony highlighted the challenges of underserved rural areas, the impact on emergency services, and the opportunities presented by significant federal funding. As the digital divide persists, the urgency to bridge this gap becomes increasingly evident, emphasizing the need for collaborative efforts, streamlined regulations, and targeted investments to ensure that no community is left behind in the pursuit of a connected and equitable future for Pennsylvania.