Officials with the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority are focused on ensuring that all residents are equipped with the necessary devices and skills as the state prepares to dole out billions of dollars from the federal government in hopes of closing the digital divide.
Through the numerous surveys, public meetings, roundtables and focus groups, state officials uncovered three overlapping themes: access, affordability and the need for improved digital skills among residents, they said during a virtual public comment session on Monday.
“We don’t just want to build the infrastructure without ensuring that our residents are able to effectively and successfully use it,” Kirsten Compitello, national broadband digital equity director with the consulting firm Michael Baker International, said during the session. “We know that having internet access is not enough to fulfill this vision. We also need for every resident in Pennsylvania to be capable and successful when they get online.”
With historic federal investments in broadband expansion through Congress and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, many states are soliciting feedback from their residents in hopes of providing reliable and universal access to high-speed internet. In preparation distributing federal funding — such as from the Broadband, Equity, Accessibility and Deployment grant program — Pennsylvania recently published a draft of its statewide digital equity plan, which strives for a balance between building the necessary infrastructure and ensuring community members are able to effectively use the internet.
The plan is based on feedback from a wide variety of groups, including older adults, English language learners, low-income households, racial and ethnic minority groups, veterans, those with disabilities and those who have formerly been incarcerated. The state’s broadband authority also engaged with nonprofits, libraries, health care organizations, community centers and those involved in public safety.
Compitello said those in rural communities often lacked reliable internet access, preventing them for applying for jobs or working remotely. She said jobs that require digital skill pay an average of 23% more than those requiring no digital skills.
Expanded internet access in Pennsylvania is also essential for schools, as was made apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some schools still lack reliable internet connectivity in the state, Compitello said. Civic and social engagement could also be improved through expanded internet services as more government meetings are held online.
Telemedicine services are likewise increasing in popularity and the ability to access medical records, manage appointments and refill prescriptions can be done online, officials pointed out.
“It’s certainly without a doubt that internet access makes more opportunities available to more residents,” Compitello said. “It removes the burden of time and travel requirement for patients who perhaps live far away from a clinic or have constraints on their time that make it difficult to commute to an in-person appointment.”
Pennsylvania’s draft digital equity plan is available online and open for public comment until Jan. 8. Residents can submit their feedback by attending in-person public comment sessions, sending feedback online or requesting a printed version to be sent by mail.