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Broadband bills advance

HARRISBURG — The state Senate Communications and Technology Committee advanced three broadband accessibility bills this week in an effort to bridge the state’s digital divide amid COVID-19.

The committee unanimously advanced Senate Bill 835, a bill that would increase funding for broadband in underserved areas, and Senate Bill 1118 and House Bill 2438, bills that would allow broadband expansion using existing infrastructure.

Those sponsoring the bills said the COVID-19 pandemic has made access to reliable internet crucial to everyday life as schools and workplaces shut down and force students and parents to work from home. The bills seek to target rural areas where broadband connectivity is in the most need.

SB835, or the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Fund­ing Pilot Program Act sponsored by state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, establishes a grant program to provide broadband infrastructure to rural communities through new private sector investments.

An amendment was offered without objection by committee Chairwoman Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hills, R-York, that would change who oversees and administers the grant program from the Department of Community, Economic and Recreational Development to the Commonwealth Financing Authority.

The amendment also will repeal the mobile telecommunications broadband investment tax credit. The tax credit is currently capped at $5 million and Phillips-Hill said the Independent Fiscal Office concluded that 90 percent of incentivized spending would have occurred without the tax credit.

The bill also states that economic and business incentives to deploy high-speed broadband service infrastructure may be insufficient in rural and low populated areas, because the unit costs of providing those services may not provide an adequate return on investment for private companies.

Langerholc said 25 percent of the funding for broadband projects would come out of the community’s own funds.

“Representing an area that is predominantly rural, I see firsthand, the significant … need for reliable broadband service,” Langerholc said.

Langerholc said the need for reliable broadband was first shown in August 2017 when a train derailed in Bedford County, and first responders were “tasked to the limit” by operating without reliable broadband service. He said the coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated this issue.

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