Lancaster County needs to expand access to reliable internet service. It has the funding and opportunity to do it now. [editorial] | Our Opinion

THE ISSUE

“Lancaster County has two major opportunities to fund improvements to its broadband infrastructure, which data suggests is worse than any of its surrounding counties,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Colin Evans reported in last Sunday’s “Lancaster Watchdog” column. “The first is funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, of which Lancaster received $106 million. The federal money can be used ‘to make necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure,’ according to the Department of the Treasury. County commissioners have yet to specify how they will use (most of) those funds, despite having started to receive them last May. The second source is future grants from the newly created Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, an 11-person group tasked with managing at least $100 million in funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed by Congress last year.” 

Unless you don’t have broadband access, you may not appreciate just how necessary it is in 2022.

Many of us use the internet every day without thinking much about it. To do schoolwork. To apply for employment. To take care of our health care needs. To pay bills. To do our banking. To work from home. To get materials from the public library. To conduct business.

The COVID-19 pandemic only has amplified the need to be connected reliably to the internet — and highlighted the gaps in internet access here.

Two years ago, when schools had to turn to remote learning, The Steinman Foundation and the Lancaster County STEM Alliance — in conjunction with Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 — stepped in to ensure access to broadband internet for families with school-age children who did not have it. (The Steinman Foundation is a local, independent family foundation that was funded by the companies that make up Steinman Communications; those companies include LNP Media Group.)

And even before the pandemic, many people living in southern Lancaster County struggled with slow download speeds that made using the internet frustrating and difficult.

As LNP | LancasterOnline’s Evans noted last Sunday, a February report from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that “27% of Lancaster County internet users had download speeds under 25 megabits per second, or Mbps, in 2021, tied with Berks County for the worst percentage among Lancaster and its neighboring counties. For 24% of users, upload speeds were under 3 Mbps, the worst figure among Lancaster and its neighbors.”

The language of megabits and upload and download speeds may be hard to decipher, but suffice to say: This is bad.

According to research for the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, approximately 11,000 to 17,700 addresses in this county are not served by broadband providers. And Comcast is the only provider that currently offers a low-cost program available to eligible low-income households.

The EDC is preparing a report — which could be released in the late spring or summer — about broadband access, affordability and adoption in Lancaster County.

Ezra Rothman, the EDC’s director of strategic initiatives and partnerships, told LNP | LancasterOnline’s Evans that the report will identify where gaps in the county exist and provide a set of specific recommendations about how Lancaster County can fill them.

“There’s significant funding. This is a really, once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation … opportunity with the funding that’s available to deal with broadband now,” Rothman said. “We are really heading into a unique time and a unique opportunity to address this.”

Unfortunately, Lancaster County Commissioners Ray D’Agostino and Josh Parsons did not respond to Evans’ requests for comment on whether they would use current funding or pursue grants to improve the county’s broadband infrastructure. Evans noted that Commissioner John Trescot, who joined the board in February, was unavailable to comment.

The State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds program is the part of the American Rescue Plan Act that designates funding for state and local governments. The program allows Lancaster County to choose how to allocate its $106 million under a set of specific allowed uses. (Some money has already been used to address staffing shortages at the county prison and other facilities.)

In January, the U.S. Department of the Treasury released its final rule on how those federal relief funds should be spent; the rule takes effect April 1. Lancaster County must decide how to use its funding by the end of 2024 and spend it by the end of 2026.

Eliminating the gaps in broadband coverage in Lancaster County would be one excellent use of federal pandemic relief funds.

As Evans reported, “the federal government recommends prioritizing areas without access to 100/20 Mbps speeds.” The Treasury Department, he noted, also recommended that “governments invest in fiber-optic infrastructure and focus on last-mile connections from households to larger broadband networks.”

As he pointed out, “Neighboring York County, which received $87 million in rescue plan act funds, committed last year to spending $25 million on expanding fiber access to underserved areas and assessing whether county-owned and leased 911 towers could be used to improve internet access.”

The silence of D’Agostino and Parsons on this subject is mystifying.

This is a matter worthy of public discussion and investment. And this is one area in which the commissioners could deploy the expertise of Trescot, their newest member, who is a retired engineer and business executive.

If the commissioners want to further improve the economic fortunes of this county and prepare this county’s students for the workforce, expanding broadband access should be among their priorities. Expanding broadband access also would enable this county’s local health care systems to more effectively practice telemedicine, which undoubtedly would advance the well-being of county residents.

Research “clearly links increased broadband availability and adoption to better economic, social and educational outcomes,” Kathryn de Wit, a project director with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband access initiative, wrote last May. “For the benefit of our communities and economy, the time has come to bridge the digital divide — between Americans who have access to broadband and those who don’t — once and for all.”

Indeed.

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