INDUSTRY, Pa. — Lance Grable had a crazy idea. What if they could get broadband internet to every home in Beaver County?
This was in 2019, before a global pandemic would drive home the essential nature of high-speed internet to everyone’s lives. Grable, the county director of Beaver County Office of Planning and Redevelopment, ran the idea up the flagpole and found maybe his idea wasn’t so crazy.
The county commissioners gave him the OK. That crazy idea would become the Connect Beaver County Broadband Program.
The Beaver County Office of Planning and Redevelopment announced plans to spend nearly $20 million of American Rescue Plan Act funding on the program. It will bring broadband to 28 municipalities that lack complete or sufficient access to reliable, high-speed internet. Grable hopes the county’s program can become a model for how broadband access can be expanded throughout the state.
“We believe that we have the roadmap for what the state needs to do,” Grable said, at an event March 24 at Western Beaver Junior/Senior High School unveiling the new program. “I’m sure we have the roadmap of what we need to fix this problem in the entire state.”
Work has already started on two projects to install new fiber optic line and get broadband service to more than 180 unserved homes in rural Beaver County, said Jeremy Jurick, GISP program manager at Michael Baker International, the engineering firm the county contracted with to manage the project.
The first project will connect more than 60 unserved locations along Hanover Kendall Road, Airline Drive and Hanny Beaver Road, Jurick said. The second project is connecting more than 120 locations in Big Beaver Borough, South Beaver Township and Darlington Township. The work is being done along Route 551, Stitt Road and State Route 51.
“The Route 51 corridor will be connected with fiber to the Ohio state border, ensuring there’s enough capacity for growth there,” Jurick said.
The county will next open a request for proposals for bids from internet service providers. Winners will be announced this summer, with more line installation work to begin in the fall. The goal is to reach all underserved and unserved areas by 2024.
The program will also boost emergency service communications systems by connecting eight county-owned towers via fiber optic cable; set up a fund to offer financial support to people who lack service due to setback distance from a main road; and study mobile wireless connectivity and future unserved areas.
Funding for the program is being funneled through the newly-created Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority. The agency was created by House Bill 2071, signed into law in December by Gov. Tom Wolf, to manage the $100 million in federal aid earmarked for broadband initiatives.
The impacts of this program will be wide-reaching. Speakers during the press conference highlighted how better broadband access will boost business and economic development, make education more equitable and increase public safety. Eric Brewer, county emergency services director, said the plans to connect the county’s aging communications towers by fiber will provide a failsafe for the public safety radio system.
“It’s been on our wish list for a while to replace those microwaves,” he said. “What this will do is provide better, more reliable connectivity between the microwaves and allow our current system to serve as a back-up. Currently, we have no redundancy. If the microwaves go out, so does our public radio system.”
The pandemic may have snapped into focus the dire need for broadband, but the county’s work began three years ago when it contracted with Michael Baker International in February 2019 to research and analyze the county’s infrastructure. This included a telecommunications inventory. The partnership grew in February 2021 to include a feasibility study to look specifically at broadband.
Grable said they started off by looking at the Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data, which is submitted by internet service providers. The data shows where the providers offer internet access, but it’s inherently flawed, he said. If one house in a census block is connected, the FCC maps consider the entire census block connected. That meant some areas might be missed, while other areas might be overbuilt, he said.
“We knew we had to put boots on the ground,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t just go with the data that was given out. We had to go out and visually check what we needed to do.”
Workers visited 2,200 locations throughout the county to document, verify and refine the FCC data. Public surveys were made available to residents and business owners where participants could test and record their internet connection speed. Nearly 600 people responded to the survey.
The picture that emerged in October 2021, when the feasibility study was completed, showed that 28 of the county’s 54 municipalities have no broadband service, poor connectivity or no infrastructure. The vast majority of these areas are in the most rural parts of the county. Jurick said the three biggest issues that came to the forefront were no service, no competition in providers and mobile wireless connectivity.
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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