By Jacob Schramm, Staff Writer
On the same day that the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh’s East End neighborhood collapsed, President Joe Biden was in the city promoting his legislative agenda. In his address that day, he promised that the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would give state and local leaders “historic funding to make national projects real,” which meant, in Pennsylvania alone, “$327 million in 2022” for repairs. Among a list of other projects, President Biden promised the creation of jobs associated with “providing the labor and infrastructure making high-speed Internet affordable and available everywhere in America…so that nobody is left behind.” This disbursement of federal funds has led the Pennsylvania legislature to establish a bipartisan commission to facilitate the rollout of broadband to the underserved areas of the state, continuing an ongoing effort to address the need for connectivity in our modern society.
Just a month before President Biden’s visit to Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania legislature unanimously passed House Bill 2071 establishing the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (“PBDA”) “to provide broadband Internet access to unserved and underserved residents.” Later stating that “broadband is as essential today as electricity and water,” Governor Wolf said that the law represents “a generational change for many rural communities” and recanted the now-common mandate to “close the digital divide” between well-connected areas and those with little or no reliable internet access. The bill established the PBDA as an “independent authority” whose exercise of power is held to be a “public and essential government function.”
In February, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency, and board member of the BDSA, released “A Speed Test Analysis” of the state’s broadband access. It found that at least eleven counties are “unserved,” meaning that they have less than 50% of users with download speeds of 25 mega-bytes per second or lower. The study identified the regions as the Central Susquehanna Valley, portions of the PA Wilds, and northeastern PA. In addition, “no Pennsylvania county had more than 50 percent of tested users fully served by broadband.”
The PBDA is an 11-member commission consisting of a Senator and Representative from each party; a member from each of the Departments of Agriculture, Community and Economic Development, and Education; and members of the aforementioned Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the PA Public Utility Commission, and the Secretary of General Services. While each Board member has their own priorities in carrying out the Commission’s functions, none receive compensation, and all must serve in a fiduciary relationship with the Commonwealth, subject to mandated reporting and audits. The Board is intended to dissolve in December of 2031 or when all available federal funds have been exhausted. It has met twice since its creation but has made no official release or public statement. Some members have indicated their approach to the commission, with Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill saying it will take a “tax-payer focused approach” by ensuring efficiency in allocating the funding, and Senator John Kane shared that sentiment, emphasizing the potential to offer “good-paying jobs” to working people in Pennsylvania.
This initiative is not unprecedented, and it did not arise purely because of the pandemic’s technological demands. In fact, 2004 legislation required that rural telecommunication carriers in Pennsylvania accelerate broadband availability to 100% by December 31, 2015, a goal that was not met by any unanimous metric. In March of 2018, Governor Wolf announced the PA Broadband Investment Incentive Program, which allocated $35 million in financial assistance to private providers bidding on service areas within PA. This came after the FCC has spent years on national programs to diagnose and solve the nation’s connectivity problems. Pennsylvania is only one among other states which have rolled out expansive and targeted strategies involving detailed tracking of their citizens’ access by geography, and developing map technology to better pinpoint and service those areas.
During his Pittsburgh speech, illustrating how bad times were when schools were closed, President Biden said “you’d drive by a McDonald’s and see a family sitting in the parking lot so the kid could use his computer…to be able to tie into the Internet.” Susan Boser, professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, similarly recounted that “on any weeknight, if you would drive into Punxsutawney you’d see cars in the parking lot around the McDonald’s,” stating that it was “parents…accessing the broadband so that their children can do their homework.” Boser diagnosed this as “the state of things in Pennsylvania rural areas for the last 10 years.” While seeming anecdotal, a representative survey reflected that in Pennsylvania’s rural areas, at least 60% of certain students reported having limited access to reliable internet services, while as many as 55% of most students reported having the same problem. Although schools have largely returned to in-person instruction, the pandemic highlighted the great disparities across the state and, while certain aspects of pandemic life remain, the need for connectivity spans well beyond that context.
Society’s reliance on technology is only growing, and it is becoming imperative that people are connected for a variety of reasons. For instance, a study surveying rural residents cited “telehealth, internet access, and technology issues” as among those factors faced by rural residents, especially youth and elderly, struggling to access mental health care. The pandemic highlighted the potential and shortcomings of telehealth in general, as some people were afforded on-demand access to their health-care providers, while other providers and patients lacked the infrastructure to effectuate such connections. In addition, many government programs are operated online and, while in-person alternatives exist, these are not always the most efficient and effective methods to connect people with these services, another reality alighted by COVID. Further, many workplaces have yet to return to in-person operation, and there is a noted preference among the workforce for adopting that as the status quo. Should the culture shift, businesses would benefit from a broad rollout of internet access and affordability, as it would shift many of the cost burdens away from them, or at least lessen their impact.
This effort to widen broadband access and connectivity is not limited to Pennsylvania. Domestically, California Congressman Ro Khanna has previously spearheaded a movement to implement an “Internet Bill of Rights” which included, among privacy and personal data rights, the right “to have access to multiple viable, affordable internet platforms and providers with clear and transparent pricing.” While that initiative was never codified into law, Representative James Clyburn has introduced HR 1783, the “Accessible Affordable Internet for All Act,” which seeks to address internet connectivity and includes sections on the expansion of broadband access, and infrastructure finance, innovation, and development. Globally, the United Nations has encouraged countries to formalize access to the internet as a fundamental right. Even before COVID, various states in India and the country’s Supreme Court, declared internet access as a basic right for every citizen “just like food, education, and water.”
While these efforts are still in their early stages, there seems to be a local, national, and global consensus that the future is online. For everyone to participate, the first step is to broaden connectivity, and in Pennsylvania the PBDA looks to be the facilitator of that step.
 Rachel Treisman, A bridge in Pittsburgh collapsed on the day of Biden’s planned infrastructure visit, Npr.org (Jan. 28, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2022/01/28/1076343656/pittsburgh-bridge-collapse-biden-visit
 Remarks by President Biden on Building a Better America (Jan. 28, 2022), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/01/28/remarks-by-president-biden-on-building-a-better-america/. See also Fact Sheet: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal (Nov. 6, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/11/06/fact-sheet-the-bipartisan-infrastructure-deal/ (stating that 30 million Americans live in areas with no broadband infrastructure, that America has the second highest broadband costs among 35 countries studied, and that the Infrastructure Act will deliver $65 billion to help ensure that every American has access to reliable high-speed internet).
 Id. (The projects include the replacement of lead water pipes, the modernization of river locks, the clean-up of mines and oil wells, and investment into electric vehicles and semiconductor technologies).
 H.R. 2071, (Pa. 2021), https://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/PN/Public/btCheck.cfm?txtType=PDF&sessYr=2021&sessInd=0&billBody=H&billTyp=B&billNbr=2071&pn=2518
 Governor Wolf Celebrates Digital Divide in Pennsylvania Through Creation of Pennsylvania Broadband Authority (Feb. 15, 2022), https://www.governor.pa.gov/newsroom/gov-wolf-celebrates-effort-to-close-digital-divide-in-pennsylvania-through-creation-of-pennsylvania-broadband-authority/; Gov. Wolf Applauds Unanimous Passage of Bill to Help Expand High-Speed Broadband Internet in Pennsylvania (Dec. 15, 2021), https://www.governor.pa.gov/newsroom/gov-wolf-applauds-unanimous-senate-passage-of-bill-to-help-expand-high-speed-broadband-internet-in-pennsylvania/
 H.R. 2071, supra note 4.
 Pennsylvania Broadband Access: A Speed Test Analysis, Center for Rural Pennsylvania (Feb. 2022), https://www.rural.pa.gov/download.cfm?file=Resources/PDFs/research-report/Broadband-Speed-Test-Analysis-Feb-2022-web.pdf
 (Central Susquehanna Valley includes Juniata, Perry, and Snyder counties; PA Wilds include Cameron, Clarion, Elk and Forest counties; and the northeast includes Susquehanna and Wyoming counties. Id.)
 H.R. 2071, supra note 4; See also Paige Gross, Gov. Wolf: This 11-person group will manage $100 million to improve PA’s broadband access(Feb. 16, 2022), https://technical.ly/civic-news/pennsylvania-broadband-development-authority/
 Kenneth Stark and James Strong, Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority to Oversee Disbursement of $100 Million in Federal Infrastructure Funds, JDSupra (Feb. 16, 2022), https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/pennsylvania-broadband-development-9101214/
 Phillips-Hill appointed to serve on Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (Jan. 11 2022), https://senatorkristin.com/2022/01/11/phillips-hill-appointed-to-serve-on-pennsylvania-broadband-development-authority/
 Senate passes bill to expand broadband access; includes responsible contractor language championed by Senator John Kane (Dec. 15, 2021), https://pasenatorkane.com/senate-passes-bill-to-expand-broadband-access/
 Act of Nov. 30, 2004, P. L. 1398, 66 PA.C.S.
 Governor Wolf Announces Broadband Expansion to Over 9,200 Rural Homes and Business (Sept. 20, 2018), https://www.governor.pa.gov/newsroom/governor-wolf-announces-broadband-expansion-9200-rural-homes-businesses/
 Shara Tibken, Millions of Americans can’t get broadband access because of a faulty FCC map. There’s a fix., Cnet (Feb. 19, 2021), https://www.cnet.com/home/internet/features/millions-of-americans-cant-get-broadband-because-of-a-faulty-fcc-map-theres-a-fix/#comment-5275896477
 Shara Tibken, States couldn’t afford to wait for the FCC’s broadband maps to improve. So they didn’t., Cnet (Feb. 23, 2021), https://www.cnet.com/home/internet/features/states-couldnt-afford-to-wait-for-the-fccs-broadband-maps-to-improve-so-they-didnt/
 Remarks by President Biden, supra note 2.
 Emily Scott, Funds for Internet Expansion Could Help Thousands in PA, Berks Community Television (Mar. 7 2022),https://www.bctv.org/2022/03/07/funds-for-internet-expansion-could-help-thousands-in-pa/
 Stephen Liscomb, Forest Crigler, and Duncan Chaplin School Instruction in Pennsylvania During the COVID-19 Pandemic (Dec. 2021), https://www.mathematica.org/publications/school-instruction-in-pennsylvania-during-the-covid-19-pandemic
 Rural Perspectives, Center for Rural Pennsylvania (Mar. 2022), https://www.rural.pa.gov/download.cfm?file=Resources/newsletters/assets/279/March%20April%202022%20newsletter%20web.pdf
 See Natalie Alms, SSA beta launches redesigned website, FCW (Apr. 6, 2022), https://fcw.com/digital-government/2022/04/ssa-beta-launches-redesigned-website/365862/; See also Lessons learned from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program during COVID-19, JP Morgan Chase & Co. (Apr. 2022), https://www.jpmorganchase.com/institute/research/household-income-spending/lessons-learned-pandemic-unemployment-assistance-program-covid
 Kim Parker, Juliana Menasce Horowitz and Rachel Minkin COVID-19 Pandemic Continues to Reshape America, Pew Research Center (Feb. 16, 2022), https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2022/02/16/covid-19-pandemic-continues-to-reshape-work-in-america/ (research showed that most workers with jobs that can be done from home are teleworking, and many of these workers cite preference over concerns about being exposed to the virus. In addition, 64% of these respondents found it easier to balance personal and work life, and 44% said it was easier to get work done and meet deadlines).
 See Daniel Wiessner, Amazon sued over employees’ remote-work costs during COVID-19 pandemic, Reuters (Mar. 25, 2022), https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/amazon-sued-over-employees-remote-work-costs-during-covid-19-pandemic-2022-03-25
 Release: Rep. Khanna Releases ‘Internet Bill of Rights’ Principles, Endorsed by Sir Time Berners-Lee (Oct. 4, 2018), https://khanna.house.gov/media/press-releases/release-rep-khanna-releases-internet-bill-rights-principles-endorsed-sir-tim
 Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, H.R. 1783, 117th Cong. (2021), https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1783?s=1&r=12
 See “Article 19,” Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”).
 Prabhash K Dutta, Internet access a fundamental right, Supreme Court makes it official: Article 19 explained, India Today (Jan. 10, 2020), https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/internet-access-fundamental-right-supreme-court-makes-official-article-19-explained-1635662-2020-01-10.