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Hearing touts region’s need for rural broadband expansion

Community, business, educational and political leaders discussed the need for expanding or bringing high-speed internet service to rural and other unserved areas of the state but noted the challenges for making it a reality.

The public hearing held by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, touched on issues ranging from funding to putting in place the infrastructure for broadband networks to serve areas.

The good news is the existence of a large pot of money available for funding high-speed internet.

The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program is providing $42.5 billion to states for funding, planning and infrastructure deployment.

It was noted that other funding sources may also be available,

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Loyalsock Township, the host of the hearing, said he does not want to see his 23rd Legislative district, which encompasses a large mostly rural geographical region, taking a “back seat” to other areas in funding allocations.

He noted that 73% of the state’s population is found in just 19 of the 67 counties.

Many of the hearing’s participants stressed the need for high-speed internet service where it does not exist.

Todd Eachus, president of Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania, said the pandemic revealed how very critical it is to close the digital gap that continues to exist.

“We need to focus on the need to bring service to those underserved areas,” he said.

But caution must be taken to invest wisely, he added.

“This is a very large program and the danger of fraud is high,” he said. “It must be undertaken with a high degree of transparency.”

Brandon Carson, executive director, Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, said his group is developing a statewide plan for high speed internet.

He noted that places of lower density population areas are being closely considered and prioritized.

“We know we have a lot of needs in our communities,” he said.

Barbara Burba, president of Pennsylvania Wireless Association, noted that finding trained people to help set up the infrastructure and technology will be needed.

And, that would be achieved by partnering with educational institutions through apprenticeships and other programs

Wyalusing Area School District Superintendent Dr. Jason Bottigliere said high speed internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

“The digital divide is real,” he said.

Internet access, he explained, is a determining factor for where people live, and is vital in education.

Jim Nobles, president and CEO, North Penn Comprehensive Health Services and Laurel Health Centers, noted that telemedicine is dependent on quality internet service.

“Behavioral health services remain our highest use of telemedicine,” he said.

Without the ability to log in and talk to a provider, many patients simply are left without the care they need.

“We must make it affordable,” he said, adding that a short-term option is an audio-only connection.

Kristin Hamilton, executive director, Develop Tioga, noted that many people looking to relocate to rural areas want to have quality internet service.

“We have people who want to move here, but how do we ensure that the underserved and unserved have access?” she said.

Tioga County Commissioner Erick Coolidge stressed the importance of internet service for senior citizens who are otherwise isolated and apart from family members.

Through cooperation and partnerships, he said, high speed internet can expand in places where it’s needed.

Elizabeth Lose, assistant director, Centre County Planning and Community Development, stated that broadband expansion is a big part of her county’s comprehensive plan.

“Our objective was to expand our broadband as much as possible through public-private partnerships,” she said.

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