It’s time for rural Pennsylvanians to speak up, and ask for federal funding for expanding broadband internet across the state.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission Friday announced they are encouraging the public to write to the Federal Communications Commission and ask for federal funding for increased rural broadband deployment across the Commonwealth.

When contacted, local lawmakers added their encouragement for constituents to speak up about this pertinent issue.

The newly proposed Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RUDOF) will make available up to $20.4 billion in federal universal service support throughout the U.S. over a ten-year period using a reverse auction. The auction will provide support to bidders who agree to provide voice and broadband service at a minimum of 25/3 Mbps to around four million rural homes and small businesses.

In response to the RUDOF proceeding, the PUC, along with the state’s Office of Consumer Advocate and the Office of Small Business Advocate, recently filed joint comments at the FCC reflecting Pennsylvania’s ongoing efforts to increase access to high speed internet service in underserved areas in the Commonwealth — while also raising concerns about ensuring that the federal funding process gives initial priority to unserved communities.

In their comments, the agencies noted that Pennsylvania currently has at least 29,739 residential or business locations that do not have, or are not on schedule to receive, broadband access service at a download speed of at least 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speed of 1 Mbps (10/1) much less than the FCC’s currently defined broadband speeds of 25/3 Mbps.

“Rural broadband is certainly a top priority. It is good that the FCC is creating a fund to provide more federal funding for rural broadband projects. I think it’s important that the funding get out to the most underserved areas, which I think is the PUC’s goal,” said state Rep. Martin Causer, R-Turtlepoint. “Otherwise, funding can be diluted and you wouldn’t see the maximum benefit out of it. My office receives a lot of calls and contacts from people on this topic. We are one of the most rural parts of PA, so we have areas that have no broadband coverage.

“It is definitely something that people reach out regularly about. It is going to take the federal and state governments, along with private industry working together, to bring broadband into the area.”

A statement from the office of Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., voiced similar encouragement.

“Senator Toomey regularly meets with community leaders and constituents in rural towns across Pennsylvania. In nearly every meeting, expanding access to rural broadband is discussed. Senator Toomey encourages any interested constituents to weigh in with the Federal Communications Commission on this initiative.”

The locations without broadband include areas where two incumbent carriers in Pennsylvania previously declined support, triggering a federal auction in 2018 in which some locations received no bids to provide service. This translates to millions of dollars of federal support, which the PUC, OCA and OSBA are trying to attract and retain for Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania regulatory parties specifically recommended that locations without at least 10/1 Mbps service today be given priority in the first of two auctions that the FCC proposes to conduct.

The PUC noted that the FCC’s proposal to upgrade locations that have access to 10/1 Mbps broadband to the higher speed of 25/3 Mbps before supporting locations that currently lack even 10/1 Mbps service could exacerbate the “digital divide” in rural areas by driving federal funding toward upgrading existing 10/1 Mbps service while leaving many other locations without any modern broadband access service.

While upgrading networks may be less expensive compared to providing service in areas that have no service today, the PUC urged the FCC to focus on making federal support available first to areas that lack 10/1 Mbps service before upgrading areas that already have that service.

“We need the FCC funding help; there’s no question. It is important that the FCC funding go to the most underserved areas. That’s where it’s going to make the maximum benefit,” Causer said. “You could have some areas that do have some broadband, which might not be as fast as some people want. When you have some areas that have none, I think they should focus on those areas first.”

Any interested member of the public may file Reply Comments in this proceeding – echoing the concerns raised by the Commission, OCA and OSBA or raising their own issues. The deadline for filing Reply Comments is Oct. 21. A party must file a Comment or Reply Comment in order to challenge any decision the FCC does make. The comments must be typed in a word program prior to submission.

Visit the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Electronic Comment Filing System, at: https://www.fcc.gov/ecfs/. -Click on the “Submit a Filing” tab, at the top of the page. Next, enter the Docket numbers (19-126, then 10-90), fill in contact info, choose Reply to Comments and Office of the Secretary from respective drop-down menus and attach up to five files/comments to the form.

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