PA broadband plan finds 250-800K locations remain unserved

Officials in Pennsylvania are looking to tackle the state’s digital divide, unveiling a multifaceted broadband plan to address challenges related to broadband infrastructure deployment, access and affordability.

Pennsylvania outlined four core challenges to closing its digital divide: broadband service infrastructure and availability; device and technology access; digital equity and affordability; and digital literacy and technical support.

Among other things, the report noted somewhere between a quarter million to 800,000 locations in the state do not have access to speeds of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. The 250,000 figure was based on data from CostQuest, though the plan did not specify whether this was the same data CostQuest provided for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) newly released broadband coverage map. The latter number was taken from the FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, which was based on widely maligned Form 477 data submitted by operators.

The plan noted another 140,000 locations are underserved, lacking access to speeds of 100/20 Mbps. An estimated 1.6 million households don’t have a computer or smartphone and an estimated 1.2 million people may lack the digital skills required to participate in the broadband ecosystem. Approximately 537,500 households did not have access to a low-cost wired broadband plan.

That latter number was calculated prior to the implementation of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) and Affordable Connectivity Programs (ACP), which offer a subsidy to help cover the cost of broadband service. To date, a total of 515,618 households in Pennsylvania have enrolled in the EBB/ACP. It’s hard to say how many of those households have applied the subsidy to wired service, though. The FCC notes 55.5% of EBB/ACP participants have used their subsidy for mobile and 43.7% for fixed service, but does not provide a state-by-state breakdown. Either way, the figure cited by the state means around 21,800 households still lack access to a low-cost broadband option even after factoring in subsidy participants.

To address its infrastructure challenges, the state plans to align its coverage maps to those provided by the FCC to more efficiently allocate grant funding. It also plans to review lease and attachment fee structures as well as permitting processes and other hurdles to deployments. Additionally, Pennsylvania will look to build and maintain a skilled workforce; ensure minimal environmental impacts from deployments; and adopt strategies to help mitigate supply chain challenges.

On the device side of the house, it plans to team with additional funding partners to provide devices in un- and underserved areas and investigate whether it can distribute refurbished devices in high-need areas. Action on affordability will include ensuring low-cost service options are available and developing a sustainable model that will allow operators to continue offering affordable options even once federal funding runs out. It also plans to develop a digital literacy plan and technical support network for residents.

The plan will be implemented by the state’s Broadband Development Authority, which was created in December 2021 in part to help manage an expected influx of federal funds from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program.

“This plan will ensure consistent, affordable, quality statewide broadband to keep children learning, businesses growing and opportunities abounding for all Pennsylvanians,” Governor Tom Wolf said in a statement.

Pennsylvania is the latest state to unveil a strategic plan to address broadband issues within its borders. Texas came out with its own scheme in June. Delaware debuted a Broadband Strategic Plan in May 2021 and recently awarded funding to several operators to reach the bulk of the state’s remaining unserved locations. California notably approved a $6 billion broadband plan in 2021, while Virginia allocated $700 million in a quest to achieve universal broadband coverage.