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Broadband summit outlines federal funding

Officials expect close to $2 billion of federal funds in the coming years to bolster broadband development across Pennsylvania.

The planning process for how to use that money is already in the works.

At the Pennsylvania Broadband Summit in Lancaster on Wednesday, state and federal officials detailed the process of how funds will get sent out and emphasized the need for public feedback.

The summit, hosted by the Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Cable and Telecommunications Foundation, detailed how most of the federal money won’t reach Pennsylvania until the summer, and sending out funds won’t happen until 2024.

Collaborating to boost broadband coverage is crucial to fix “a really challenging problem,” said Nicole Ugarte, a federal program officer at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. “If this was an easier challenge, it would have been fixed already.”

The telecommunications administration runs the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which will send out more than $42 billion to states. Pennsylvania will get a large portion of that money.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, akin to the electrification of America.”

“We’re projecting upwards of over $1.6 billion or so, that’s the estimate,” said Pam Frontino, grants manager at the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority. “We certainly have our work ahead of us and we’ve been very busy with preparations.”

That money can be used to expand broadband service to unserved and underserved areas across the state. Previously, state officials estimated receiving about $1 billion.

Beyond the BEAD program, another $279 million will be available through the American Rescue Plan Act earmarked for capital projects for infrastructure build-outs, facility upgrades, and purchases for devices such as tablets and computers.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Ugarte said, “akin to the electrification of America.”

The federal money also comes with accountability guidelines structured differently from other federal grants.

“This is different,” Ugarte said. “We’re giving Pennsylvania a little bit of money, then they tell us what they’ll do, and then we sign off on the rest of the money, making sure they’re hitting the goals. There’s a big accountability component at every level.”

Pennsylvania broadband officials feel confident that they won’t squander the funds.

“Geographically,” Frontino said, “I think we have a good handle on where the unserved and underserved areas are that we need to be focused on.”

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