Governor Announces Initiative to Expand Broadband Access

On Monday, March 19, Governor Tom Wolf announced a new initiative aimed at expanding broadband access to businesses and households in Pennsylvania through the creation of a new office dedicated to ensuring every Pennsylvanian has access to high-speed internet. The announcement also included the introduction of the Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive Program, which offers incentives to private providers willing to invest in underserved and unserved areas throughout Pennsylvania.

To spearhead the initiative the governor has created the Pennsylvania Office of Broadband Initiatives which will be responsible for developing and executing a statewide strategy to expand access to every Pennsylvanian by the end of 2022. To lead this initiative the governor appointed Mark Smith as the Executive Director of Broadband Initiatives. Smith, a former Bradford County Commissioner, has been with the Wolf Administration since 2015 serving as a Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Government Affairs and Outreach.

Currently, over 800,000 Pennsylvanians still lack access to robust, reliable, High-Speed Internet. Over 520,000 of residents without access reside in rural areas and over 250,000 reside in urban areas. 

Additionally, the governor announced the Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive Program. Through this program, the Wolf Administration is offering up to $35 million in financial incentives to private providers bidding on service areas within Pennsylvania in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) upcoming Connect America Fund Phase II (CAFII) Auction. The FCC CAF Phase II Auction is making nearly $2 billion available nationwide to providers willing to expand broadband access in unserved areas.

The program is available to all service providers interested in the CAFII Auction. Guidelines will be released March 22, with April 2 being the first day to file Preliminary Expressions of Interest. Any provider who wishes to participate will be subject to state guidelines and requirements that will ensure that service is delivered by June 30, 2022 and broadband speeds meet or exceed 100 Mbps, while encouraging the delivery of gigabit service.

The above noted $35 million of incentive funding is being provided through PennDOT to fulfill its strategic goal of building network along roadways, right of ways, and intersections and furthering connections between all its facilities. As the needs and demands of vehicle technology increase, including autonomous vehicles, so will the demands on the state to support digital transportation needs. PennDOT Secretary Leslie S. Richards spoke about this future planning at the Cabinet in Your Community meeting held March 12 at Bloomsburg University. Broadband buildout benefits for PennDOT include better communications for public safety devices, the ability to provide high speed access and communication between PennDOT and emergency management partners, the ability to connect key traffic signals to PennDOT’s traffic management centers, and the success of deployment of automated vehicles.

The Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive Program is the first, but not the only effort the Office of Broadband Initiatives will undertake to expand broadband access. The new office is also developing a longer-term approach to deliver service to those areas not included in the FCC CAFII auction. This endeavor will require further assistance from the private sector, FCC or other federal agencies, and the state legislature. The Chamber has joined with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission in calling for greater flexibility in the use of federal funds to expand broadband infrastructure.