Lancaster County Needs to Expand Broadband Access and Has the Funding and Opportunity to Do It Now [editorial] | Our opinion
“Lancaster County has two major opportunities to fund upgrades to its broadband infrastructure, which the data shows is worse than any of its surrounding counties,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Colin Evans reported in last Sunday’s “Lancaster Watchdog” column. “The first is funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, from which Lancaster received $106 million. Federal money can be used “to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure,” according to the Treasury Department. County commissioners have yet to say how they will use (most of) these funds, although they began receiving them last May. The second source is future grants from the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, an 11-person group responsible for managing at least $100 million in funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress l ‘last year.
Unless you don’t have access to broadband, you might not realize how necessary it is in 2022.
Many of us use the Internet every day without giving it much thought. To do school work. To apply for a job. To meet our health needs. To pay bills. To do our banking. To work at home. To obtain documents from the public library. To do business.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the need to be reliably connected to the internet – and has exposed the gaps in internet access here.
Two years ago, when schools had to turn to remote learning, the Steinman Foundation and the Lancaster County STEM Alliance – together with Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 – stepped in to ensure high internet access debit to families with school-aged children who have done so. not have it. (The Steinman Foundation is a local, independent family foundation that was funded by the companies that make up Steinman Communications; those companies include LNP Media Group.)
And even before the pandemic, many people living in southern Lancaster County struggled with slow download speeds that made using the internet frustrating and difficult.
Like NL | LancasterOnline’s Evans noted last Sunday, a February report from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that “27% of Internet users in Lancaster County had download speeds below 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, in 2021, tied with Berks County for the worst percentage among Lancaster and its neighboring counties.For 24% of users, download speeds were below 3 Mbps, the worst figure among Lancaster and its neighbors.
The language of megabits and upload and download speeds can be hard to decipher, but suffice it to say: it’s bad.
According to research conducted by the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, approximately 11,000 to 17,700 addresses in that county are not served by broadband providers. And Comcast is the only provider that currently offers a low-cost program available to eligible low-income households.
EDC is preparing a report — which could be released in late spring or summer — on broadband access, affordability and adoption in Lancaster County.
Ezra Rothman, director of strategic initiatives and partnerships at EDC, told LNP | Evans of LancasterOnline that the report will identify gaps in the county and provide a set of specific recommendations on how Lancaster County can fill them.
“There is significant funding. This is truly a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation opportunity…with the funding available to cope with broadband now,” Rothman said. “We are really heading into a unique time and a unique opportunity to approach this.”
Unfortunately, Lancaster County Commissioners Ray D’Agostino and Josh Parsons did not respond to Evans’ requests for comment on whether they would use current funding or seek grants to improve broadband infrastructure. County. Evans noted that Commissioner John Trescot, who joined the board in February, was unavailable for comment.
The State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program is the portion of the American Rescue Plan Act that designates state and local government funding. The program allows Lancaster County to choose how to allocate its $106 million within a set of specific permitted uses. (Funds have already been used to address staffing shortages at the county jail and other facilities.)
In January, the US Treasury Department released its final rule on how these federal relief funds should be spent; the rule goes into effect April 1. Lancaster County must decide how to use its funding by the end of 2024 and spend it by the end of 2026.
Closing the broadband coverage gaps in Lancaster County would be a great use of federal pandemic relief funds.
As Evans reported, “The federal government recommends prioritizing areas without access to 100/20 Mbps speeds.” The Treasury Department, he noted, also recommended that “governments invest in fiber optic infrastructure and focus on last-mile household connections to broader broadband networks.”
As he pointed out, “neighboring York County, which received $87 million in Bailout Act funds, last year pledged to spend $25 million to expand the fiber access to underserved areas and to assess whether county-owned and leased 911 towers could be used to improve Internet access.”
The silence of D’Agostino and Parsons on this subject is mystifying.
This is a question that deserves to be debated and invested in publicly. And this is an area where the commissioners could deploy the expertise of Trescot, their newest member, who is a retired engineer and business executive.
If the commissioners want to further improve the economic fortunes of this county and prepare this county’s students for the workforce, expanding broadband access should be high on their agenda. Expanding broadband access would also allow local health care systems in this county to perform telemedicine more efficiently, which would undoubtedly improve the well-being of county residents.
The research “clearly links increased availability and adoption of broadband to better economic, social and educational outcomes,” wrote Kathryn de Wit, project director of The Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Access Initiative, last May. “For the benefit of our communities and our economy, now is the time to close the digital divide – between Americans who have access to broadband and those who don’t – once and for all.”