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Economy & Business

Southwestern Pa. residents can help boost the area's broadband haul from the infrastructure bill

Infrastructure Deal-Broadband-Explainer
Ted S. Warren
/
AP
In this Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, file photo, Carl Roath, left, a worker with the Mason County (Wash.) Public Utility District, pulls fiber optic cable off of a spool, as he works with a team to install broadband internet service. Pennsylvania is set to receive at least $100 million for broadband expansion from President Biden's recently passed infrastructure bill.

Now that President Biden has signed his infrastructure bill into law, civic groups in southwestern Pennsylvania are getting ready to apply for funds to expand broadband service.

First, they want to get a better idea of the region’s connectivity needs, so they’re asking residents to complete a survey about the quality of their internet access.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a planning agency for the 10 counties that make up the state’s southwest corner, is leading the study with Carnegie Mellon University and the Pittsburgh-based child advocacy nonprofit Allies for Children. They’ve called the initiative “Southwestern Pennsylvania Connected.”

The state will get at least $100 million to invest in broadband, according to federal officials. Vincent Valdes, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, said the amount the Pittsburgh area receives will depend on its level of need.

“That's certainly important to be able to access that money since I think it'll be competitive,” he said. “We're launching a survey to really kind of get a granular sense as to what the needs are in our region.”

There are doubts about the quality of federal data. But in June, the White House released new figures that show that, in southwestern Pennsylvania’s 10 counties, the proportion of households that lack internet access ranges from 12% in Butler County to 22% in Fayette and Indiana Counties.

Southwestern Pennsylvania Connected has also compiled maps to gauge broadband availability in the region.

Valdes said the group’s survey will provide more details about what residents' individual needs are.

“There is nothing like actually speaking to real people about real issues and concerns and problems so that we can serve them,” he said.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission could apply for broadband funds itself or help local governments and other organizations to do so. Valdes said federal officials still have to say how they’ll distribute the money.

Valdes said the regional effort to address internet needs began about a year ago, shortly after he joined the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission in June 2020. By then, Congress had already approved spending on broadband as part of its first coronavirus relief package. The need for high-speed internet had exploded thanks to COVID-related closures that prompted a switch to remote schooling, working from home, and telehealth appointments.

“It was clear that the federal government and the state government would be supporting the technology because it's become very basic to how we live every day,” said Valdes. “I just wanted the southwestern Pennsylvania region to be at the front of the line when funding became available.”

Southwestern Pennsylvania Connected’s survey stemming from the new infrastructure package will remain open until December 5. It is available here or by calling 412-407-4555.