HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) today encouraged residents, businesses, local leaders and other concerned parties – especially in rural communities – to contact the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in support of efforts to preserve nearly $140 million in funding intended to increase access to high speed internet service in underserved areas in Pennsylvania.
Earlier this year, the PUC and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) filed a joint petition with the FCC as part of an ongoing effort to address Pennsylvania’s “digital divide” by preserving millions of dollars in federal funding intended to increase access to high speed internet service in rural communities across the Commonwealth.
“Collectively, residents and businesses in nearly every county face the prospect of losing federal financial support for high speed internet deployment,” said Commissioner David W. Sweet, who has been heavily involved in the PUC’s efforts. “There are many situations where some will be left behind, based simply on the identity of the local company that provides them with telephone service – while others – living or working on the same street, or perhaps on the other side of the street – benefit from millions of dollars in new broadband networks.”
Funding for the Connect America Fund Phase II program (CAF II) is drawn from the federal universal service surcharges paid by state residents and businesses. It is intended to support the deployment of broadband service in high-cost areas, including many rural communities. Most incumbent local telephone companies serving Pennsylvania’s high-cost areas accepted the CAF II funding, along with the commitment to meet federal benchmarks for broadband speed (10 Mbps download & 1 Mbps upload), but the Verizon companies did not, jeopardizing the continued availability of millions of dollars in broadband support throughout Pennsylvania.
“The FCC plans to conduct an auction to allocate the broadband funding that was not accepted by Verizon, and the PUC has been encouraging all concerned parties to work together to keep these dollars in our state,” said Commissioner Sweet. “We remain hopeful that the FCC will consider the joint petition by the PUC and DCED to approve a Pennsylvania-specific weighting factor to the upcoming CAF II auction.”
To highlight the wide-reaching impact of this issue, Commissioner Sweet noted that a total of 31 counties face the loss of at least $1 million funding for broadband deployment, including Indiana, Somerset, Warren, Clearfield, Lycoming, Washington, Huntingdon, Centre, Crawford, Erie, Clinton, Venango, Cambria, Westmoreland, Forest, Jefferson, York, Snyder, Wayne, Blair, Fayette, Mercer, Schuylkill, Columbia, Tioga, Mifflin, Chester, Lebanon, Clarion, Beaver and Allegheny. Additionally, eight counties – Indiana, Somerset, Warren, Clearfield, Lycoming, Washington, Huntingdon and Centre – could lose $5 million or more in funding for high speed Internet enhancements.
The Commission also noted the “neighbor versus neighbor” aspect of the situation, using Huntingdon County – in Central Pennsylvania – as an example. Residents in that county who are served by Frontier, CenturyLink and Windstream will be on the receiving end of a more than $8 million investment in broadband systems. Meanwhile, the portions of Huntingdon County served by Verizon could lose access to almost $7 million in high speed internet improvements.
“We are concerned about a growing gap between Pennsylvania communities and businesses that have access to higher broadband speeds, and those that do not,” said Commissioner Sweet. “Now is the time for concerned citizens to make their voices heard, before the opportunity to preserve this funding slips away.”
Information regarding how to submit comments electronically or by mail to the FCC on this issue is available on the PUC’s website.
Additionally, the Commission continues to encourage state and local leaders to continue exploring mechanisms to enhance financial support for rural broadband projects – which could help influence the FCC’s decision about where funds should be directed.
The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission balances the needs of consumers and utilities; ensures safe and reliable utility service at reasonable rates; protects the public interest; educates consumers to make independent and informed utility choices; furthers economic development; and fosters new technologies and competitive markets in an environmentally sound manner.
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