Over 180 representatives from federal, state and local government, as well as service providers and businesses, met Thursday, Feb. 16, to address broadband deployment throughout the region.
“There are so many limitless opportunities that we wanted to be able to walk out of here understanding, especially how we can take the next step forward in working together,” said Butler County Commissioner Leslie Osche. “And I’m clear on it — I think everybody else is.”
The seven-hour summit — hosted by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission at Cranberry Township’s Regional Learning Alliance — was prompted by the commission’s regional study on broadband accessibility. Its series of panel discussions addressed legislation, affordability, funding and, ultimately, statewide implementation for the service.
“I think we came in today just looking to get educated, and looking to educate the attendees,” said Andy Waple, deputy executive director of programs for the commission. “And for collaboration.”
Osche, also commission chairperson, said that collaboration was what this summit was all about.
“We knew going in the importance of us collaborating and working together, and that we learn from one another,” Osche said. “And that became clear today.”
Beaver County and Greene County, which have both successfully implemented broadband programs of their own, presented their approaches as part of the panels. It is this spirit of openness and collaboration, Osche said, that helps other counties better equip themselves to make broadband accessibility a reality.
“My hope for today was that we were all going to be able to walk out of here sort of knowing how we’re going to dance together,” she said. “Understanding how we are going to work with providers, how are we going to work with our aligned counties.”
She cited regions of inaccessibility that cross county lines as an example of this “dance.”
“It may very well be that we’re trying to provide service in an area that crosses a county line — I can tell you that will happen in our county,” Osche said. “In the northeast corner of the county, we may want to work with Armstrong (County), Clarion (County).”
Cooperation alone is not enough, though. According to Waple, it is with the funding opportunities presented at the summit that broadband access will be brought to the region
“There’s a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous need,” Waple said. “Opportunity being all of the funding that’s coming out, and the need is the need for all parts of the region — urban, rural.”
The summit addressed many of the incoming federal funds for broadband access: the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment, or BEAD, program; the Digital Equity Act programs; and the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program. It also covered alternative funding sources that are already available in Pennsylvania.
“The best part about today is you’re getting all of the levels of opportunities that exist,” Osche said. “As well as hearing everything from the federal-level agencies that have other funding opportunities, in addition to the funding that’s coming.”
While broadband funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is widely understood, according to Waple, the panels discussed alternative sources of which counties may have been unaware.
“The FCC and (National Telecommunication and Information Administration) funding for the infrastructure bill has been very well publicized, so everybody’s been hearing about this and all this money,” Waple said. “But you have USDA that’s been funding broadband for decades, and you have ARC, the Appalachian Regional Commission, that’s a well established entity — but it’s not being promoted as much as the infrastructure funding.”
For the county and the region, the next steps mean marrying collaboration, opportunity and action
“Expectation were high,” Osche said. “We also had funding available to do some work, but I think our concern — as all councils are concerned — is how do you leverage that money best knowing that there is additional money coming.”
Osche said the various funding streams have different frameworks, expectations and limitations.
“You want to make sure you’re putting your money in the right places and your investments in the right places,” she said.
Waiting for the data and information gathered by the commission and presented at the summit allowed the county to circumvent a costly broadband study of its own, according to Osche.
“We recognize that, from a county-level, our municipalities and individuals are wanting service, and they want it now,” Osche said. “People were really anxious when they saw the money coming, not understanding there’s a timeline.”
And that timeline draws nearer and nearer.
“I think right now there are some immediate opportunities that we can explore, but also we’ll have a few months to prepare for, working with SPC and our partners, the BEAD funding that will be ready to be deployed in 2024,” Osche said. “We have, somebody said, eight months for the process, so we essentially have eight months to figure this out.”
A new perspective
Brandon Carson, executive director for the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, got exactly what he expected from the summit
“We came in expecting to hear about some of the work that’s being done locally, and I think we heard just that,” he said. “There’s a lot of great work that folks are doing, locally, in this part of the state, and we’re excited to support those efforts any way we can.”
That work and planning by the many local entities will be essential as broadband starts to roll out, according to Carson.
“I think it’s important to mention that we’re not looking to recreate any planning work that’s already been done,” he said. “Some of the good work that we saw and heard today, we want to make sure we’re incorporating that into our process — and that we’re not reinventing the wheel.”
For Joe Taylor, vice president of the Armstrong Group of companies, the summit set the wheels of accessibility in motion.
“I think we brought the right players together here and shared a lot of good information,” Taylor said. “I think everything’s still evolving, it’s not complete yet, but I think we’re going down the path.”
Alka Patel, vice president of government and external affairs with Comcast Keystone Region, said she left the summit with perspective.
“We heard from a lot of people who played different roles — at the federal level, state level, the community level, the providers, the state broadband association,” Patel said. “What I walked away with is that we’re all trying to solve the same thing and we’re all facing similar issues.”
Patel felt that the relationships highlighted by the summit were the key to bridging the digital divide.
“We recognize though that there are a lot of interdependencies, with respect to other entities organizations that need to be involved and be part of the conversation,” she said. “And we recognize that, at the end of the day, we’re all in this to make sure that our communities are connected.”
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