Within Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania, we have an export problem. I learned of this not from research, but through conversations I have had with many the past few years.
You have likely had these types of conversations as well. “This is my first time to Pittsburgh, and what a gem you have here! This must be one of the best held secrets in the U.S.”
Unfortunately, many business leaders outside of southwestern Pennsylvania are unaware of our region’s potential.
Couple this with a comment I received from a colleague in the broadband industry from Cincinnati while working from home: “Jeremy, you’re telling me you don’t have access to fiber, yet you are located just outside of Pittsburgh?”
It’s true. According to the FCC National Broadband Map, 74% of Hamilton County, Ohio, has access to fiber broadband at speeds of 2Gbps symmetric. Allegheny County? Only 3%, and that’s when lowering the bar to only 1Gbps download.
Imagine you have a flourishing small business in rural Butler County. You know the potential of ChatGPT to develop the perfect job posting to quickly grow your staff, but your satellite or DSL connection makes this concept laughable.
Pittsburgh and our surrounding region have incredible potential, but we need the digital infrastructure in place to export our story, including our digital and tangible goods and offerings.
By now you have heard of forthcoming government funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to bridge the “digital divide.” This term is commonly used to describe the gap in connectivity between our urban and rural geographies, with the areas unserved by broadband typically being rural in nature. Based on funding guidelines, if you rely on satellite or DSL today, your area will likely see a positive impact within the next few years due to this funding. If you currently have access to fiber or reliable cable, your area may not be slated for funding.
So, what might this mean to local urban and rural businesses? To use an example, the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA) recently released their $200 million Broadband Infrastructure Program grant opportunity. Armstrong submitted grant applications to construct fiber within multiple rural Pennsylvania school districts. When approved by PBDA, every unserved business and household within these districts will have access to fiber at 3Gbps symmetric speeds. These speeds are 3.5x faster than fiber available in Pittsburgh, including upload speeds exceeding 85x the speed of the city’s fastest cable broadband offering. We’ll then experience the inverse of the digital divide, with rural raising the bar and urban needing to play catch up. My sincere hope is that broadband providers invest private risk capital into existing urban networks to keep up.
In total, the PBDA will receive $1.16 billion in funding from IIJA. Is this enough to run fiber to every unserved location in Pennsylvania? Absolutely not. But we should continue to prioritize fiber connectivity in southwest Pennsylvania.
Per our region’s historic work ethic, we acted early, with many counties funding fiber projects, the University of Pittsburgh and Greater Pittsburgh Digital Inclusion Alliance advocating for digital skills training, and Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC), Carnegie Mellon University and Allies for Children developing our region’s Connectivity Roadmap alongside 400 stakeholders.
I propose two calls to action to ensure better broadband for businesses: 1. Provide feedback on the PBDA’s initial proposal, which describes how the Commonwealth will distribute the $1.16 billion in funding, and 2. Take the forthcoming SPC survey on small business connectivity issues.
Now it is time to turn advocacy and planning into implementation. The funding is available. Let’s ensure we have the digital infrastructure in place to export our story instead of our early career professionals.
Jeremy Jurick is director of regulatory policy at Armstrong Telecommunications.
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