A group of local leaders and county officials were on hand Thursday morning at the Bedford County Development Association to discuss the future of rural broadband services to the area.
The roundtable gathering was led by U.S. Rep. John Joyce, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr, and Brandon Carson, executive director of the newly-formed Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority.
As part of the Biden Administration's larger ‘Internet for All’ initiative, Pennsylvania is set to receive at least $100 million in federal funding for affordable, widespread internet access.
Joyce reiterated his commitment to get as many dollars of that allocation as possible in heightened broadband access to his constituency.
“I work for you,” he said. “I’m on a two-year contract right now. My goal in this initiative is to make sure we have the adequate funds for this here in south central and southwestern Pennsylvania.”
While the money has already been earmarked by the federal government, the major holdup in the project itself is new mapping needing to be released by the Federal Communications Commission.
Carr stated that old maps are outdated and haven’t painted a full picture of detailed broadband capabilities in many areas, including Joyce’s district which features topographical challenges across its primarily rural layout.
“Once they release the map, Pennsylvania will have the money ready to begin flowing. We’ll have a 270-day window to complete a five-year action plan, and funds will be coming up to 180 days after that. This is a huge undertaking by the FCC to get this down to individual addresses. It’s about a year of planning and four years of implementation.”
Previous maps might show access available on a wider scale but, in most cases, wouldn’t have a house-by-house or street-by-street way of knowing if there is availability or not in any given location.
Carr is optimistic that the new FCC map will be released by the end of the year, also saying accuracy is a must.
“(The FCC) has to get them done as soon as possible, but they have to be right,” said Carr. “That first one they release has to be in the strike zone. It can’t be a wild pitch.”
Education and healthcare leaders from the county were also on hand, with each pointing out the positive advantages of improved connectivity.
“Every student at a school in Bedford County has a device, an iPad or a laptop computer,” said Mike O’Dellick, Administrative Director of the Bedford County Technical Center. “Schools have adapted technologically with those devices in the classroom, but we have students without access at home. We saw with Covid how much of an educational challenge that can be.”
A wider broadband blanket is also likely to make its mark on the local job market for county graduates that may look elsewhere for employment.
“We’re losing students that grew up in this area,” added O’Dellick. “More internet can mean more can work from home or those that have better, higher-paying jobs.”
Between staffing issues and other rising costs, telemedicine services have become more popular and likely will moving forward, according to UPMC Bedford and UPMC Altoona president Jan Fisher.
“The technology is there for us to use,” she said. “But we can’t execute on that unless we can get into people’s homes. Home-based care is the future.”
William Kurtycz, CEO of Hyndman Area Health Center, agreed.
“We need to have better telemedicine capability,” said Kurtycz. “Transportation can be an issue, so to increase visits and care, increasing broadband will make it easier for people to participate more in their own healthcare.”
Carson, who was named Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority in May, offered a timeline for the project after new maps are approved.
“Once they release the map, Pennsylvania will have the money ready to begin flowing,” he said. “We’ll have a 270-day window to complete a five-year action plan, and funds will be coming up to 180 days after that. This is a huge undertaking by the FCC to get this down to individual addresses. It’s about a year of planning and four years of implementation.”