Submitted from the Office of Senator Joe Pittman, 41st Senatorial District
The COVID-19 pandemic brought many dramatic changes to our lives as we’ve worked together to curb the spread of the deadly virus. Our normal routines are no longer normal and many of the events that shape and enrich our lives have been altered, or put on hold, as we wait for scientists and medical professionals to finally develop a vaccine that will end this sad chapter of our lives.
The coronavirus indiscriminately impacted everyone.
Our senior citizens, especially those in assisted living facilities, have been at particularly high-risk from the virus. Many have been cloistered away, cut off from their families and friends.
Businesses have been shuttered and jobs lost. Working remotely has become the new routine as platforms such as Zoom have developed into an essential new tool for businesses and government.
A devastating and far-reaching impact of this virus has involved our children, those students enrolled in school districts that closed to in-person instruction earlier this year — and may do so again if cases spike as the weather gets colder.
The coronavirus exposed many unnecessary technological weaknesses in Pennsylvania, in particular, the lack of broadband internet access. As a member of the Senate Communications and Technology Committee, I recognize this need and my collegues and I have worked to address it.
This lack of internet access was the subject of several bills and legislative hearings, even before COVID-19 vividly and dramatically exposed the shortcomings in broadband coverage. These coverage gaps are especially prevalent in rural areas of Pennsylvania – an issue that was brought to light in our local school districts where many students were unable to participate in online learning during the pandemic because they lacked internet service.
The Legislature recently passed and the Governor signed into law Act 98 of 2020 (House Bill 2438), the companion bill to Senate Bill 1118 that I introduced – that allows electric cooperatives to use existing utility poles for broadband fiber lines, as long as it does not negatively impact the value or use of property.
Hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians currently receive electric service through distribution lines owned and maintained by electric cooperatives and a simple revision to current law would allow those groups to install lines to provide internet service using the same utility poles.
The 13 electric distribution cooperatives in Pennsylvania are not-for-profit, member-owned utilities that provide affordable and reliable electric service to hundreds of thousands of consumers in rural areas.
Another bill currently being considered by the General Assembly would create a $5 million grant program through the Commonwealth Financing Authority to assist non-governmental entities in expanding broadband access.
Other bills pending in the Legislature would direct the Department of General Services to conduct an inventory of all state-owned assets to leverage existing resources for the provisioning of high-speed broadband.
The pandemic showed that broadband access is no longer a luxury, but rather a necessity to allow students to learn, businesses and government to function, and for families to remain in contact with each other. I am hopeful that among the lessons we have learned over the past few difficult months is that government must take every reasonable step possible to finally ensure that interconnectivity is possible in every part of our great Commonwealth.