Todd Eachus: Government Red Tape Threatens Universal Broadband

Expert Opinion

Pennsylvania’s mountainous terrain and rural areas with few homes have made it difficult and expensive for broadband expansion.

Broadband Breakfast Todd Eachus: Government Red Tape Threatens Universal Broadband The author of this Expert Opinion is Todd Eachus, president of the Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania

The energy was palpable. Red and white balloons in company’s colors and the aroma of popcorn welcomed honored guests, company executives, current employees, recent and long-time retirees, and community members.

All were on hand March 14 for the grand opening of Armstrong’s Connellsville office, and even Lt. Gov. Austin Davis offered remarks, along with a half-dozen state and local officials. 

Why all the fuss about a new office? After all, Armstrong has been in Fayette County and its surrounding counties for nearly 60 years.

This celebration wasn’t just about new jobs being created or a more convenient place for customers, but it signaled optimism – optimism that $1.5 billion in federal broadband funding would lead to even more grand opening celebrations, the creation of hundreds of new, permanent jobs, and connectivity in places that barely registered cell phone signals.

In Connellsville and rural Fayette County, connectivity is a game-changer. That’s why the deployment of broadband is so critical to the future of these small areas, which are losing population. Families cherish their way of life here. They want to keep their adult children here in Pennsylvania, and broadband brings the type of opportunities needed to reverse the Brain Drain.

It’s no secret that Pennsylvania’s mountainous terrain and rural areas with few homes have made it difficult and expensive for broadband expansion.

Even with $1.5 billion in federal funds coming to the Commonwealth, government regulations are driving up the cost of deployment even more, thereby threatening the goal of “internet for all.”

At a time when connectivity is essential to daily living – from education and health care to agriculture and commerce – Pennsylvania state government is insisting on using unsuitable worker classifications for those who will get the job done. 

Instead of appropriate classifications for cable splicer or teledata lineman, the state Department of Labor and Industry insists broadband companies use the “electric lineman” classification and at rates 30% to 40% higher than even current telecommunications workers under union contracts. In doing so, they are ignoring the practices of both the federal government and dozens of rural states by refusing to establish job classifications for companies installing rural broadband.

Simply, appropriate classifications for appropriate work scope make sense. Teledata linemen do not require the same skills or safety training as electric linemen. Workers within the broadband space are trained in various precautions and safe practices relevant to their work with teledata cables and are not trained to work with and are prohibited from working with electric cable.

It is imperative that every dollar be spent to its maximum benefit and that regulatory hurdles such as these be addressed as efficiently as possible. Without appropriate job classifications, overall project costs are expected to increase by upwards of 50% and increase a grant applicant’s 25% match as well. Those increased project expenses will make it nearly impossible, if not completely impossible, to connect our unserved rural residents.

The message being conveyed by the Shapiro Administration is contradictory at best. One agency, Labor and Industry, insists upon using higher job classifications with higher wages and higher overall project costs. At the same time, its sister agency, the Department of Community and Economic Development, has publicly expressed its confidence that the $1.5 billion in federal funding (both Capital Projects Funds and Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment) is enough to reach every unserved and underserved location.

If Gov. Shapiro really wants to “Get Stuff Done,” his administration needs to recognize the clear need for separate classifications for this essential work. Otherwise, universal connectivity will never be achieved, and rural Pennsylvania will yet again be left behind.

Todd Eachus is president of the Broadband Communications Association of Pennsylvania. This piece is original to Broadband Breakfast.

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