Last December, my column “Closing Pennsylvania’s Digital Divide” reviewed promises made and promises broken by companies who years ago pledged to make high speed internet available to everyone in the Commonwealth. For some of you, it may have been a revelation that residents of Delta, Fawn Grove and Hopewell Townships must drive to the South Eastern School District parking lot so their children can access the district’s Wi-Fi in order to get their homework done (some residents of Springfield and York townships in the Dallastown Area School District are forced to do the same thing).
For other readers, the column was a painful reminder that this vital classroom tool isn’t readily available to their children. In a world where internet availability is a staple of the learning process, many students struggle because they lack internet access at home. During 2017, I have been contacted by many people from outside York County who are experiencing the same frustrations with lack of high speed internet availability.
This lack of availability is not only an impediment to students. Closing the digital divide in rural Pennsylvania would also provide economic opportunities to our rural small businesses, farmers, emergency service providers, and residents seeking access to telemedicine services.
In the General Assembly, strength in numbers is a key to getting legislation passed to solve problems. With regard to increasing internet availability, it wasn’t hard to find a legislative colleague equally as committed to solving this problem. Looking across the aisle, I partnered with Democrat state Rep. Pam Snyder serves the Commonwealth’s three most southwestern counties - Greene, Fayette and Washington. Her district is more rural than mine and peppered with “holes” in the alleged blanket of internet coverage. Together we authored and introduced a four-bill package of legislation to:
- Conduct an in-depth investigation and audit into the compliance of non-rural telecommunication carriers with Act 67 of 1993 and Act 183 of 2004.
- Establish a special bipartisan, bicameral legislative commission to recommend improvements to the deployment of high-speed broadband services in unserved and underserved areas.
- Inventory all state department, agency, commission or institution owned communication towers, poles, buildings, and facilities to leverage existing state-owned assets for the provisioning of high speed broadband internet to unserved and underserved areas.
- Audit the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s administration of the E-Fund, a six-year education technology program that was to address network modernization plans.
Additionally, Rep. Snyder and I hosted a meeting with representatives of the Microsoft Corporation to make clear to them Pennsylvania is interested in participating in their plan to close the internet gap by bringing broadband connectivity to two million people in rural America by 2022. While Pennsylvania was not included in the initial group of a dozen states, we want Pennsylvania to be at the head of the line for the next opportunity to partner with them should the plan be successful and subsequently expanded.
Microsoft officials shared their strategic approach, which involves combining private sector capital investments in new technologies with public sector support. Their model accesses unused broadcasting frequencies together with existing technology projects to expand service. President Trump has indicated that, for our rural regions, his infrastructure proposal would distribute block grants for infrastructure, including broadband investments. This federal action combined with better data collection about rural broadband coverage that would assist policy makers and the private sector will help eliminate the rural broadband gap. Government at every level will need to work together to assure a positive environment for making rural broadband access a reality.
In 2018, I will continue to push for passage of the above bills and pro-actively seek other initiatives and opportunities to bring high speed broadband internet accessibility to all my constituents.
Representative Kristin Phillips-Hill
93rd Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Scott Little