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Money for Centre County broadband expansion at risk after Verizon rejects subsidy

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is asking the Federal Communications Commission to make sure federal funding meant to help expand broadband internet access in Pennsylvania isn’t sent to another state just because Verizon declined to participate.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., is asking the Federal Communications Commission to make sure federal funding meant to help expand broadband internet access in Pennsylvania isn’t sent to another state just because Verizon declined to participate. AP

More than $23 million in federal funding originally slated to expand broadband internet in Pennsylvania is at risk of going to another state, potentially affecting about 24,000 people living in rural parts of Centre County.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., says his office is working with the Federal Communications Commission to help keep the “Connect America” broadband money in the state even though the Verizon company that would have received the funds has declined to take part in the program.

The FCC has the option of putting the funds up for competitive bid to another company, which could mean the money is transferred to broadband providers out of state.

Casey’s letter to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler on Thursday argues Pennsylvania communities still need the money to ensure better broadband access. He said the state’s Public Utilities Commission should have a shot at resolving the issue before the federal agency looks to reallocate the funds.

“Access to broadband and advanced telecommunication technology are essential to full participation in economic and social life for every American,” Casey wrote. “Pennsylvania has demonstrated a long-term commitment to achieving the goal of universal service so a family farmer in Susquehanna County has the same opportunity to compete and succeed as a graphic designer in Philadelphia.”

The “Connect America” federal program uses money collected from major telecommunications companies to help offset industry costs in rural areas. In most cases, the program is intended to provide internet service in communities private companies might otherwise not to invest because of lower profit margins and high infrastructure costs.

Pennsylvania has made its own investments in rural broadband access, putting close to $969 million toward helping companies expand service through rate and revenue relief programs, also known as business incentives.

The $23.27 million in federal funding at stake is about half the total Pennsylvania expected to see through the “Connect America” program, Casey’s office said.

“Losing all or part of this funding would be unfair to Pennsylvania residents in rural and high-cost areas and contrary to the FCC’s goal of ensuring broadband access for all,” the senator wrote. “Pennsylvania’s rural residents need this funding . . . 20 percent of Pennsylvanians living in rural areas do not have access to high-speed internet, with that number rising as high as 69 percent in some counties.”

In Centre County, the data show 24,551 residents do not have access to broadband internet – about 15 percent of the county’s population.

In total, Casey’s office says the “Connect America” broadband program could benefit up to 803,645 people in Pennsylvania as companies expand service and infrastructure.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews

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