Pennsylvania gets $20 million to boost broadband and device accessibility

The federal grant program is part of $279 million in broadband funding distributed through the Capital Projects Fund

Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker joins local, state and federal officials to announce broadband device funding on March 1, 2024

Philadelphia Mayor Cherelle Parker joins local, state and federal officials to announce broadband device funding on March 1, 2024 Harrison Cann

Standing inside the gymnasium at Martin Luther King Recreation Center in North Philadelphia, Philadelphia City Councilmember Jeffery Young gave voice to what has become a fact of life for everyone from kindergarteners to businesses, government – and anyone else online today: High-speed internet access is “no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”

“We must understand that we have to keep our communities connected in order for them to thrive in the future,” Young said at a press conference Friday. “I can tell you firsthand that this rec center specifically needs that money.”

Young and Mayor Cherelle Parker joined state, local and federal officials Friday morning to announce $20 million in federal funding coming to the commonwealth allocated toward increasing the number of devices and broadband accessibility within workforce training centers, municipalities and local entities like the MLK Rec Center. 

“Broadband was one of the great unifiers during my tenure in the Pennsylvania House – where both urban and rural legislators could move forward in the same direction because we both needed this infrastructure badly,” Parker said Friday. “We have 160 rec centers just like the MLK Rec Center, and we need (to bring) a computer and internet and access to each and every one of them.”

As part of the American Rescue Plan legislation, the U.S. Treasury is providing $10 billion to states through the Capital Projects Fund program to increase broadband access nationwide, including $279 million to the commonwealth for critical infrastructure and related projects. The $20 million grant program, included in the $279 million allocation, seeks to increase access to digital devices that will enable an estimated 12,000 individuals annually to participate in work, education, and health monitoring activities.

Schools, libraries, recreation centers and more across the commonwealth will now have the opportunity to apply for federal funding to increase access to broadband-connected devices. 

Juliet Fink-Yates, broadband & digital inclusion manager within Parker’s Office of Innovation & Technology, noted that 16% of the city’s households lack broadband access at home and about 19% lack access to a working laptop, desktop or tablet at home. 

Fink-Yates added that the city’s 2021 internet assessment found that 42% of Hispanic residents whose primary language was Spanish lacked access to a working laptop, desktop or tablet at home, as well as 41% of older adults in the city. 

“Research has shown that having a large screen device matters,” Fink-Yates said Friday. “You cannot write a lengthy paper for school or create a resume on your smartphone.” 

Stephen Benjamin, White House Senior Advisor to the President and Director of Public Engagement and the former mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, said the federal focus on broadband accessibility is part of an effort to improve what he called “21st-century” infrastructure.

“(We’re) trying to make sure that nothing stands in the way – from putting fiber in the ground (and) putting devices in people’s hands to making sure accessibility is affordable,” Benjamin told City & State. “We’re going to focus on working families doing their very best to participate in the American dream, and you have to do that by building the economy from the middle out and bottom up.”

State and federal officials said the application period for the commonwealth’s grant program is expected to open later this year.