UNIVERSITY PARK — An interactive map unveiled recently by Penn State Extension and created in consultation with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission — will help internet service providers as they prepare to bid on projects to expand broadband services to unserved regions in Pennsylvania.

“One of the great realizations to many policymakers, to educators and to retailers during the COVID-19 outbreak is the inability of Pennsylvanians in rural areas to access high-speed broadband,” said Director of Penn State Extension and Associate Dean in the College of Agricultural Sciences Brent Hales.

“People told to telecommute are unable to do so due to lack of critical infrastructure,” Hales said. “Students cannot complete necessary lessons online. Businesses are challenged to serve customers because of limited access. We are committed to working with legislators and providers to find solutions to ensure the future economic and community vitality of the commonwealth.”

One solution to help the roughly 800,000 Pennsylvanians without broadband internet access is to assist the companies that can provide that service, noted Extension Educator in Business and Community Vitality Harry Crissy.

Crissy explained that the Federal Communications Commission, through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, has allocated $20.4 billion for projects that expand broadband in unserved rural areas. Internet providers are invited to bid on projects at “reverse auctions,” the first of which is set for Oct. 22.

To help these companies better estimate their project costs and the infrastructure needed, Penn State Extension and the PUC created an interactive map that breaks the commonwealth into “census blocks,” the smallest group division designated by the U.S. Census Bureau. At this level, the map displays the name of the service provider and the level of service provided.

These geographic pockets, which can range from a handful of homes to several city blocks, are underserved by FCC standards. Auction preference is weighted toward blocks with service of less than 25 megabits per second. 

The map, which features measuring tools to help providers make estimates, also includes reserve prices at the census block group level and the number of eligible sites within the block group. In addition, users can find details on existing structures, transmission lines, substations, tower data and legislator information.

Expanding high-speed internet services will enhance the quality of life for all citizens, Crissy contends. “A critical step in accomplishing this is to put tools in the hands of those who can make it happen. We believe this map is one of those tools.”

The map is available at extension.psu.edu/pennsylvania-broadband-map-app. For additional information, contact Crissy at (814) 802-1024.

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