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Pennsylvania legislators must remove barriers to broadband access throughout the commonwealth | Opinion

Meka Egwuekwe | Penn Live

Published 11:00 a.m. CT Feburary 23, 2024

A rural building with a cell tower in the background.

In the quest to forge a connected Pennsylvania, an urgent challenge confronts every citizen: the Commonwealth’s restrictive laws that stymie local governments from building their own internet networks. This legislative stranglehold not only hinders progress but also inflicts a profound injustice on rural, impoverished, and ethnically diverse communities.

The Pennsylvania state legislature must act swiftly and decisively to dismantle these barriers, paving the way for a future where digital equity is not just an aspiration but a reality.

The 2004 law, a relic more serving of telecom companies than citizens, shackles the hands of local governments, forcing them to first offer incumbent landline phone companies the opportunity to provide broadband services. This “right of first refusal” has become a weapon of exclusion, allowing private companies to dictate the digital fate of entire communities. In the wake of this policy, a stark digital chasm has emerged, leaving the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians stranded on the wrong side of progress.

The enduring restrictions on local broadband initiatives represent a glaring missed opportunity. By thwarting local efforts, Pennsylvania squanders the potential for innovation, economic growth, and community development. Communities devoid of adequate internet access find themselves in an economic quagmire, struggling to attract businesses and retain talent. Pennsylvania’s inertia in this matter is not just a policy failure; it is an abdication of responsibility towards its citizens.

Rural communities, where the digital divide cuts deepest, are particularly crippled by Pennsylvania’s misguided legislation. These areas, starved of reliable internet, are denied the basic tools for modern living – education, healthcare, and economic opportunity. By continuing to ignore the plight of rural Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth not only exacerbates socioeconomic disparities but also betrays the very values of equity and justice it purports to uphold.

The impact on poorer communities and communities of color is equally alarming. In areas where systemic barriers already cast long shadows, the absence of affordable, high-speed internet further entrenches cycles of poverty and disenfranchisement. Digital inclusion must be more than a hollow promise; it demands the dismantling of structures that perpetuate inequality and the creation of pathways that lead to empowerment and opportunity.

Reflecting on the importance to close the digital divide, as articulated by numerous broadband advocates around the Commonwealth and beyond, it becomes clear that Pennsylvania’s current trajectory is at odds with the vision of a united and prosperous nation. Pennsylvania’s reluctance to align with federal initiatives for broadband expansion not only stifles immediate progress but also inflicts long-term damage on its economic and social fabric.

The Biden administration’s commitment to publicly-owned broadband, embedded in the largest federal investment in the sector, underscores the critical role local governments can play in bridging the digital divide. Yet, Pennsylvania’s obstinate adherence to outdated, ill-conceived laws undermines this national endeavor, perpetuating a status quo that is untenable and unjust.

The chilling effect of these restrictions on public-private partnerships and local initiatives cannot be overstated. Potential projects that could revolutionize broadband access in underserved areas are thwarted, leaving communities in a perpetual state of digital limbo. This situation is not just a policy oversight; it is a moral crisis that demands immediate action.

It is high time for the Pennsylvania state legislature to rise to the occasion. Repealing the restrictive 2004 law is not just a legislative move; it is a bold statement of commitment to digital equity and social justice. Such action would enable local governments to champion innovative solutions, tailor-made for their unique community needs.

This is a call to action, a plea for legislative courage to confront the digital divide head-on. It is an appeal to acknowledge the disproportionate impact of these restrictions on rural, poorer, and minority communities, and to act with the urgency that this injustice demands.

In conclusion, the path to a digitally inclusive Pennsylvania is clear: the state legislature must repeal the restrictions on local governments building their own internet networks. This action would not only rectify a longstanding wrong but also usher in an era of unprecedented digital empowerment. It’s time for Pennsylvania to not only envision but also actualize a future where every citizen, regardless of their zip code or socioeconomic status, has the key to the digital kingdom. Let this be the moment when Pennsylvania boldly steps into the light of digital equity and justice.

Meka Egwuekwe is Executive Director at CodeCrew, a tech nonprofit that mentors and empowers kids and adults through AI and computer science education..

Check out The Pennlive article here 


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