PDBA adopts broadband plan, Sen. Kane urges Pa. residents to review access map

The PA Broadband Development Authority voted unanimously to adopt the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Broadband Plan that will focus on four challenge areas and explore opportunities for universal broadband access in Pennsylvania. 

The four challenge areas are: 

  • Broadband Service Infrastructure and Availability 
  • Digital Equity and Affordability 
  • Device and Technology Access 
  • Digital Literacy and Technical Support 

Senator John Kane, D-Chester/Delaware, said Pennsylvania has not only pressing short-term needs for broadband access but also equally essential long-term needs. 

“Serving as Minority Chair on the Communications & Technology Committee, we have identified countless benefits to expanding broadband access,” Kane said in a statement. “When we provide all Pennsylvanians with strong and reliable internet access, it allows our businesses to work efficiently locally while also being able to compete in the global economy.” 

Kane said that reliable internet access will provide additional benefits to Pennsylvania residents, including more options for high quality health care, accelerating schools and reinvigorating students with access to new ideas, text and resources, all while connecting the state in more ways than before. 

“Moving forward, it is imperative that we can accurately locate and determine which areas of our commonwealth need these essential broadband services,” said Kane. 

The FCC released last November its draft National Broadband Map, which serves as a location-by-location view of high-speed Internet availability in America. At that time, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Pennsylvania’s Statewide Broadband Plan. From Nov. 17 until the deadline date of Jan. 13, 2023, eligible entities can submit challenges in time for the FCC to include corrections in the final version of the map. The final version of the map will be used to allocate Internet for All funding in the summer of 2023. 

“This is the ideal time for residents, businesses, schools, and organizations to check the FCC map to ensure their broadband availability is accurately represented,” Kane said. “A precise map of broadband connections will allow us to represent and speak for the areas who need broadband throughout our commonwealth, and make sure it is in the funding plan.” 

The board voted at a special meeting held by the PA Department of Community and Economic Development Authority to approve the scope of work and budget proposed by Penn State Extension. The plan is designed to help advance the planning and implementation efforts done by the Broadband Authority. 

“To have Penn State and the Broadband Authority working together on this Statewide Broadband plan shows that it’s all hands-on-deck to get reliable connectivity throughout our Commonwealth,” said Kane. “It is up to us to do all we can to keep this plan moving and strengthen the signal in Pennsylvania.”

UPMC Pinnacle awarded FCC funding for telehealth services

UPMC Pinnacle was awarded more than $705,000 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enhance telehealth services at its hospitals.

The Harrisburg-based UPMC will use the money for tablets, desktop computers, telemedicine carts and videoconferencing equipment to help improve communication between patients and their providers across the system’s facilities, the FCC announced.

The funds will also help the system launch an on-demand, virtual telehealth program to help triage, diagnose and treat COVID-19 patients and allow high-risk patients to stay at home, receive care and reduce exposure to health care workers and other patients, according to the FCC.

UPMC Pinnacle already offers video conferencing for COVID-19 patients and has grown its telehealth services exponentially since the beginning of the pandemic.

Within a week of increasing its focus on telemedicine, UPMC Pinnacle reported that it trained more than 650 ambulatory health providers and specialists to use its telehealth program.

The grant is part of a $200 million pool set aside for the FCC by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, approved by Congress in late March.

“The program provides immediate support to eligible health care providers responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by fully funding their telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services until the program’s funds have been expended or the COVID-19 pandemic has ended,” the FCC statement.

UPMC Pinnacle is one of 514 organizations to receive awards through the department’s COVID-19 Telehealth program, which has already awarded $189.27 million in funding to health care providers across the country.

The FCC also awarded more than $499,000 to Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown, which is set to use the funds for videoconferencing equipment, software, tablets and network upgrades.

Phone, broadband providers pledge to keep customers connected

For the next 60 days, Service Electric of Allentown will open Wi-Fi hotspots to all who need them, and will not terminate services to residential or small business customers who can’t pay their bills due to complications from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The company has joined the Federal Communications Commission’s Keep America Connected Pledge, which asks U.S. telephone and broadband service providers to keep users connected during this period.

Hundreds of communications providers have already agreed to the pledge, including RCN, Verizon and Comcast, which provide services locally.

The pledge asks providers for the next 60 days to:

  • Not terminate service to any residential or small business due to the inability to pay their bill.
  • Waive late fees that residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstance related to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Open its Wi-Fi hotspots to everyone.

Additionally, SECTV said it will offer free broadband modems to qualifying customers during this ongoing national emergency.

Many national wireless phone companies have also taken the pledge.

“As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and causes a series of disruptions to the economic, educational, medical, and civic life of our country, it is imperative that Americans stay connected. Broadband will enable them to communicate with their loved ones and doctors, telework, ensure their children can engage in remote learning, and—importantly—take part in the ‘social distancing’ that will be so critical to limiting the spread of this novel coronavirus,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Chairman Pai also continued the FCC’s ongoing discussions with service providers regarding their efforts to ensure that changes in usage patterns occurring during the pandemic do not impair network performance, as well as their plans to ensure network resiliency.