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Penn State Extension Educator Honored for Tackling the Digital Divide
Pennsylvania Ag Connection - 11/24/2021

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Cooperative Extension System and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities recently named Harry Crissy, a business and community vitality educator with Penn State Extension, as the 2021 Northeast Regional Excellence in Extension Award recipient.

The award recognized Crissy's efforts to expand broadband internet service in underserved areas of Pennsylvania.

The organizations annually present a national Excellence in Extension Award and five regional awards. Crissy and the other recipients were honored at a virtual event Nov. 9.

"Each year, these awards showcase the fundamental, transformative difference Cooperative Extension continues to make in our society," said USDA-NIFA Director Carrie Castille.

Broadband expansion could transform daily life for thousands of Pennsylvanians in rural and underserved areas, Crissy noted.

"While the need for accessible and affordable broadband extends far beyond the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic has added a newfound urgency to broadband expansion," he said. "Connectivity is an essential aspect of our day-to-day lives."

To help bridge the digital divide, Penn State Extension has collaborated with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. Crissy helped lead spatial analytics work for an interactive broadband access map.

The interactive map -- thought to be among the first of its kind in the nation -- breaks the commonwealth into "census blocks," the smallest group division designated by the U.S. Census Bureau. Many of these geographic pockets, which can range from a handful of homes to several city blocks, are underserved with broadband, according to Federal Communications Commission standards.

The map features measuring tools to help internet service providers make work estimates and includes available funding at the census block group level and the number of eligible sites within the block group.

"Expanding high-speed internet services will enhance the quality of life for all citizens," Crissy said. "A critical step in accomplishing this is to put tools in the hands of those who can make it happen. We believe this map is one of those tools."

The map helped internet service providers prepare bids for "reverse auctions" held by the FCC in October 2020. The FCC allocated $20.4 billion to expand broadband in unserved rural areas through its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.

Pennsylvania received nearly $369 million from the FCC -- the seventh highest amount awarded in the nation -- in the first auction. Over the next decade, 13 internet service providers will carry out the task of providing broadband access to more than 184,500 homes and businesses in the state.

Based in Warren County, Crissy described the declining job opportunities in rural areas such as his. "We're losing opportunities by the day," he said. "[With high-speed internet], you essentially have a new form of transportation. I could work anywhere in the world by telecommuting."

Crissy launched an updated map Nov. 8, with the latest data available from the FCC. Other new features will appear over the next 10 days, including measuring tools with 2020 Census data.

According to Crissy, low-income neighborhoods draw the most interest on the site. This means that people checking the site -- often county commissioners or community leaders -- are looking for funding to serve low-income neighborhoods, he explained.

"I would encourage any public leader to engage with us," Crissy said. "Let's see how we can make sure people who need the service most are served."

Wendy Powers, chair of the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, which coordinates Cooperative Extension nationwide, congratulated the award recipients. "They are leading the way in communicating trusted science to the latest generation of learners and problem-solvers in communities across the nation," she said.

Crissy emphasized the teamwork involved. "I received the award because I'm the educator, but I'm representing a lot of people," he said. "This effort came out of conversations among the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, internet service providers and public leaders."

Other key players in the initiative include Tom Beresnyak, area client relationship manager for Penn State Extension, and Joseph Witmer, adviser and legal counsel to PUC Chairperson Gladys M. Brown. Crissy also cited contributions from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and the Pennsylvania Department of Education.


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