Gov. Wolf pledges $15M to bridge digital divide among Pennsylvania students

Gov. Tom Wolf on Thursday committed $15 million in federal coronavirus aid money toward helping schools provide adequate, reliable broadband internet access to students who might otherwise struggle with remote learning.

Wolf said the pandemic has forced schools to “rethink and rework how to provide instruction to students who are learning completely at home or in a hybrid model.” He said the funding will help fill in digital gaps as districts navigate new waters.

The money will fund a variety of approaches, including $1.4 million for public libraries to expand their internet access footprint and invest in more Wi-Fi hotspots and $8 million for a datacasting initiative that would use TV signals to deliver education content without Internet access.

The money will also go toward getting devices to facilitate datacasting, like antenna and laptops. Another $2 million will help provide adaptive and assistive technology – like tablet mounts, smart pens and other devices – to students who need it.

The pledge of $15 million comes two days after the state Senate passed a bill to create a grant fund that would get broadband service to rural and under-served areas of the state.

“The covid-19 pandemic has brought into view what we in rural Pennsylvania have known for some time – broadband is essential to connectivity, education, safety and productivity,” said Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., who represents parts of Bedford, Cambria and Clearfield counties and who sponsored the bill.

The bill would provide money to improve access and limit funding to entities that have shown they actually have the ability to build and provide internet services. They would also have to fund 20% of the project.

Matthew Splain, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, said a lot of rural areas still rely on DSL for internet access.

Splain, superintendent of the Otto-Eldred School District in McKean County, said geography plays a large role in the reliability of access, and just because an area is shown as having coverage mean that it’s actually reliable.

“The farther you get up in the hollow, the worse the access is,” he said.

In homes relying on DSL or other non-broadband internet, problems can be magnified if there are multiple students doing remote learning in the same house.

“Then you’re talking about twice as much or three times as much bandwidth,” Splain said. “Ideally you find someone to run a fiber connection out to every household, but there’s no incentive for companies to increase infrastructure knowing they’re not going to recoup that.”

A Penn State study released in 2019 showed the digital divide across the state might be much larger than reported: there isn’t a single county where at least 50% of the population received broadband connectivity, defined by the Federal Communications Commission as 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

In Allegheny County, for example, the median broadband download speed was 20 Mbps, meaning 50% of the study respondents experienced faster speeds and 50% experienced slower speeds.

In Westmoreland County, the median broadband download speed was 12.3 Mbps.

In both cases, FCC maps show the counties as having 25/3 Mbps broadband service availability.

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, mguza@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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Coronavirus | News | Pennsylvania

Published at Thu, 10 Sep 2020 20:54:34 +0000

Source: Gov. Wolf pledges $15M to bridge digital divide among Pennsylvania students.

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