Dysfunction Even in a Pandemic: A Look at Broadband

Gerrymandering plus unfair legislative rules yield an unresponsive legislature where good solutions to important issues rarely get a vote.

What is Broadband? Broadband is the name of the technology that is used to connect people to the internet. It’s called “broad” because it allows a lot of people to use it at once. Either wired or wireless, it is a lot quicker than other types of internet access and it is essential in today’s world.

The Problem

Many Pennsylvanians do not have broadband access. A June 2019 report on high speed broadband access from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that less than 50% of residents in EVERY county do have high speed broadband access.

According to a November 2020 report, lack of broadband access continues to be a problem, even during the pandemic. No broadband access means:

The Solution

Pass laws that give everyone in Pennsylvania broadband access.

Is our legislature aware of the problem?

Yes.

Since 2003, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency with members from both the house and senate and both political parties, has been issuing reports on the need for better internet access. Those reports have regularly provided data about the great need and have offered specific recommendations for legislative fixes. Over the years, the PA State Grange, Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, PA School Boards Association and others have asked for help.

This problem is across the board in Pennsylvania. According to the June 2019 report, “The FCC has reported multiple times that tens of millions of people are living in communities without adequate broadband access, with the largest blocks of underserved being low income, central-city neighborhoods (often containing a substantial minority population) and more rural areas of the country.” Both rural communities and inner city residents are suffering.

Since the 2009-2010 session, legislators from both parties and both chambers have introduced bills to expand, fund, and allow broadband but the bills have rarely been considered in committee and until this year none received a final vote.

Hasn’t COVID-19 made the need for broadband even more important?

Yes!

The pandemic made the need for broadband access as essential as water. During the pandemic, doctor offices shut down, businesses closed their doors to customers, and schools moved completely online. Some Pennsylvanians were able to use telehealth to discuss their healthcare over the internet with doctors. Some Pennsylvania businesses were able to survive by moving their work and employees online. Some students were able to transition to home learning through their home high speed service. But many Pennsylvanias couldn’t, not without broadband access.

Over a dozen bills were introduced in the 2019-2020 legislative year alone to help Pennsylvanians get the broadband access they need. Only two made it to the Governor’s desk. One will create a broadband grant process for underserved areas and the other simply allows utility poles to be used for broadband. Both were passed in the very last days of the legislative session, months after the pressing need became obvious.

Why did it take a pandemic to get a broadband bill passed?

As we’ve seen, bills with strong public support are rarely guaranteed attention in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Committee chairs decide what to consider. Legislative leaders in one chamber can ignore bills passed in the other. Even the pandemic wasn’t enough to hurry the process. While our legislators moved many bills very quickly during the opening days of Covid-19, it took over 8 months to pass two broadband bills. The benefit of those bills will not reach communities in need any time soon.

Dysfunctional rules and an unresponsive legislature harm all of us.

Contact Your Legislator

Read More

Rural Teacher and Her Dad Fight for Broadband Access

Broadband Internet Service in Rural and Urban Pennsylvania: A Common Wealth or Digital Divide? 2003 Center for Rural Pennsylvania Report

COVID-19 Exposes Broadband Inequality for Rural Students

Broadband Availability and Access in Rural Pennsylvania

Rules Reform