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Broadband gets boost

Pennsylvania has been counting on federal funds to pay for better broadband access in rural areas of the state. Now it has a vehicle for distributing those funds.
  • Before closing out their work for the year, state lawmakers approved a bill creating a new broadband authority tasked with spending at least $100 million in federal funds over the next decade.
  • The authority, which drew bipartisan support, is designed to address a longstanding need for better and faster internet service in rural and other underserved areas of the state.
  • "With this investment and planning, we will close the digital divide, improve the cost, and bring new opportunities to communities that broadband provides," Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement.
  • He plans to sign the bill, according to an administration spokesperson.

What will it do: The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority will serve as a point of contact for companies and organizations looking for money for projects that expand high-speed internet access in areas that lack it.
What fundingThe startup money was authorized in the federal infrastructure bill passed into law this year by the U.S. Congress.
  • Each state is getting at least $100 million for broadband
  • But more could be coming. The bill set aside $65 billion overall for broadband, and the Pennsylvania authority could apply for funding from other pots.

Who's in charge: The new authority will fall under the aegis of the Department of Community and Economic Development, which expects to need a staff of up to 10 people for the initiative, according to a fiscal note prepared by the state Senate.
  • The agency anticipates shelling out around $1.3 million per year on administrative expenses -- and could spend another $300,000 to $1.5 million per year on consultants, according to the Senate note.
  • The ultimate power will lie with the authority's board. Its 11 members will include five state cabinet secretaries, the chair of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, the executive director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and four members appointed by the legislature.
  • The governor will pick the authority's chair from among them

Why does it matter: The lack of high-speed internet access became a pain point for many people during the first year or so of the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • News stories recounted example after example of parents pulling into school parking lots so their children could access the internet and do homework.
  • Small businesses also need access to sell products online and collaborate with potential business partners.
  • To meet the need in York County, local officials have been working on an initiative called Yoco Fiber.
  • The Economic Development Co. of Lancaster County also has been tackling the issue.

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Quick takes

WHO'LL BE PAYING MORE: Customers of Columbia Gas of Pennsylvania. State utility regulators yesterday approved a rate increase that will hit the utility's customers starting Dec. 29. A subsidiary of Indiana-based NiSource, Columbia Gas had been seeking an overall hike of nearly 20%. The approved hike is just under 12%, though the actual amount varies by customer class.
  • A typical small-business customer will pay 9.72% more for natural gas, with their monthly bills rising from $164.92 to $180.95, according to a settlement agreement between Columbia and customer advocates.
  • The typical household will see its monthly bill rise 8.27%, from $100.77 to $109.10.
  • Columbia Gas serves roughly 436,000 retail customers in portions of 26 counties, including Adams, Franklin and York.

The background: Energy costs are rising across the board for U.S. consumers.
  • Fuel oil, used in heating, has been up the most: 59.3% for the year ending in November, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Natural gas has seen a 25.1% hike, while electricity is up 6.5%, according to the agency.

WHO'S SIGNALING: Customers Bank. The Berks County-based bank has adopted a new look in a bid to highlight its national ambitions and focus on financial technology. The bank, which has assets of more than $19 billion, has invested heavily in so-called fintech tools, including a platform for payments in cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.
  • Customers also is branching into markets well beyond Pennsylvania.
  • The bank opened an office this month in Wilmington, North Carolina, which joins recently established offices in Dallas and Orlando. The bank also has an office in Chicago.
  • The old logo incorporated red, white and blue and a U.S. flag as a nod to the American dream, executive chairman Jay Sidhu said in a statement. "But as an emblem of a fintech-forward financial institution with a national reach, we need to signal markets, investors, and clients that we have a modern look, feel and discipline." 
  • This is how, according to the bank:

WHAT'S POSTPONED: A zoning decision on a $68.5 million solar project in Dover Township, York County, that has drawn concern from neighbors. Officials were slated to vote at a meeting Wednesday night to allow the project but postponed a decision due to high turnout for the meeting, according to TV station Fox 43.  

WHO'S MAPPING: The Pennsylvania Legislative Redistricting Commission. The panel unveiled draft preliminary maps for state House and Senate districts -- because when it comes to drawing new lines, Congressional seats are not the only game in town.

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Compiled and written by Joel Berg

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