Brandon Carson, Pennsylvania, Broadband Director

Pennsylvania will be getting $1.2 billion in BEAD rural broadband funding, making it one of the top states in terms of amount awarded. Telecompetitor spoke recently with Brandon Carson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, about BEAD and other efforts to make broadband available throughout the state.

Pennsylvania is neither the first nor the last in the unspoken state-by-state competition to award funding. The Commonwealth’s Volume I was recently approved, clearing the way for the challenge process to launch on April 1.

The Commonwealth aims to deliver service to 236,000 unserved and 52,000 underserved locations. Carson points out that the most recent under/unserved numbers are down 40,000 locations; he attributes the reduction to significant recent private investment and completion of some enforceable funding commitments.

In its Volume II, the Commonwealth outlines plans for two rounds of funding, with the first round soliciting proposals starting this summer. Round one applicants will be required to cover at least 95% of eligible broadband serviceable locations (BSLs) in the proposed project area.

“We understand that some locations in extremely hard-to-reach areas could significantly drive up project costs,” Carson said. “This approach will help maximize investments in the appropriate technologies and allow us to solicit for a second round of applications to fill in the gap areas.”

As for the last 5%, Carson expressed that, “We have been very upfront in that we know it will take all technologies to get everyone served. We know it’s going to take fiber, hybrid fiber-coax, fixed wireless, and satellite if we’re going to achieve universal access. We are confident that the $1.2 billion will get everyone connected.”

Much of Carson’s optimism is based on the state’s experience with awarding Capital Projects Fund (CPF) money. While a 25% match was required, many of the applications came in with significantly more, between 40% and 60%.

“There is a lot of work to be done this year, but like many states, our BEAD schedule doesn’t have us awarding funds until sometime in 2025,” Carson said. “BEAD presents a monumental opportunity, and we have to get it right. We’re working closely with our partners at NTIA to follow the prescribed process, and it takes time.”

Municipal Network Prohibitions

The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA) has not been without a few minor controversies, a quick Google search reveals. First, the Commonwealth has a law on the books (Chapter 30, Act 183 of 2004) that restricts municipal broadband, which isn’t necessarily — at first glance — aligned to BEAD’s regulations that require municipalities to be eligible entities.

Peeling back what the law says, Carson explained that Pennsylvania requires local governments that are looking to provide broadband to give the incumbent telephone company the opportunity to deploy high-speed internet service before the door opens for a municipality to provide broadband for a fee.

Carson said that while he isn’t hearing from municipalities interested in offering internet service directly, “there’s a lot of discussion about potential partnerships between local governments and industry. We’re also seeing rural coops express interest in BEAD and they’re in a good position to deploy in rural, unserved areas.”

Industry Involvement

With the geographical terrain in Pennsylvania featuring obstacles such as a high prevalence of limestone, many BEAD projects will rely on delivering fiber overhead, meaning the difficult process of obtaining pole-attachment rights will be part of many (if not most) BEAD projects.

Carson explained that the PBDA is currently working with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, which has a pole attachment working group. PBDA members are sitting in on that group to find ways to streamline timelines and mitigate pole attachment costs and complexities.

He emphasized that while his team is also making great strides working with private industry, there’s still much to be done to make sure that everyone in the industry is “pulling in the same direction.”

Source: Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority

Delving deeper, Carson said that the PBDA’s Technical Subcommittee includes representation from a number of industry partners who help to inform the state’s strategy. “The group has been vocal in representing the interests of industry throughout this process. And while we’ve had disagreements, we’re working together toward a common goal of universal connectivity in Pennsylvania.”

Also underway is Pennsylvania’s Broadband Ready Communities Program. The program drives awareness and creates opportunities for collaboration and partnerships with local government entities. The program will designate participating local governments as “Broadband Ready Communities,” signaling to the private sector that the community has reduced barriers to deploying broadband infrastructure.

CPF Requests Reveal Big Need

The Pennsylvania Broadband office team, numbering 11 employees today, is currently readying recipient announcements for the $279 million it received from the federal CPF program.

First up to be awarded is $200 million tagged for infrastructure and line extension, with applications solicited in 2023. Carson said that they received applications seeking $1 billion — five times the amount of funding available. Recipients will be named in April.

“The funding will reach more than 30,000 locations across the state,” Carson said.  These are the first funds PBDA will award, and we’ve learned a lot, informing the BEAD program and reducing our number of unserved locations.

Another $45 million is newly available for a community facilities improvement program. Ultimately, the awards will go to improve community anchor institutions (CAI) to ensure that they are able to stay viable.

Finally, on the CPF front, Pennsylvania will stand up a $20 million device access program by the end of the year for various device lending programs.

Pillars of the Plan

“When I came on board as the executive director in 2022, the first task I was asked to complete was to develop a statewide broadband plan,” Carson explained. “That process has given us a big head start on BEAD.”

Carson said that the statewide plan has four key pillars/elements that are woven into the BEAD five-year plan, as well as all the Commonwealth’s programming:

  • Access to infrastructure
  • Affordability of access
  • Access to adequate devices (laptop, computer, tablet)
  • Education/technical assistance (digital literacy)

While universal access is a top priority for the PBDA, Carson emphasized that education can’t be forgotten because, “If folks don’t understand the value of broadband or don’t have the skills they need to use it, you can have the best access, hardware, and price — and it won’t matter.”

Additionally, PBDA established four separate stakeholder/technical subcommittees to help implement the plan and support its pillars. These include Data & Mapping, Technical, Workforce & Supply Chain, and Outreach & Education.

From Newbie to Vet

The nature of the expanding state broadband office “world” has quickly turned Carson from feeling like a newbie into feeling like a seasoned vet.

Before joining the Commonwealth and the PBDA, Carson spent 15 years working for a regional planning commission that served six counties in the south-central part of the state.

Core to his role and function was to identify needs and align resources to address those needs. “I started my career in 2006, and immediately broadband and the lack of connectivity started to surface. It was a theme for all 15 of my years at the regional planning commission.”

He explained that this merely set the stage for him to jump at the opportunity to run the Commonwealth’s broadband office when the opportunity presented itself.

“Knowing that there would be resources allocated to finally tackle the broadband issue head on, I jumped at it — I had to be part of it,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be given the opportunity to build the office from the ground up. We have an outstanding team that takes ‘internet for all’ seriously.”

Having seen the challenges that communities face when they don’t have adequate connectivity firsthand, Carson is committed to closing the connectivity gap that has existed for too long in Pennsylvania.

Additional information about Pennsylvania broadband, including links to state resources and state-specific Telecompetitor coverage, can be found on the Telecompetitor Broadband Nation page for the state.

Join the Conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Don’t Miss Any of Our Content

What’s happening with broadband and why is it important? Find out by subscribing to Telecompetitor’s newsletter today.

You have Successfully Subscribed!