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Study: $3.2M needed to fix Blair County broadband service

Two strategies identified to tackle broadband issue

Courtesy graphic

The results from the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission’s broadband study are in, and it appears that Blair County will need about $3.2 million to bring service to its problem areas.

Blair County seems to be better off than some of the other rural counties, but there are problem areas – especially in Sinking Valley and the areas outside of Williamsburg Borough.

The study identified two strategies to address the broadband situation in Blair County.

“The study identified a wireless solution using existing or new towers to provide wireless signal to customers. Companies like Crowsnest Broadband and In The Sticks can do that. We hope to partner with folks like that,” said Brandon Carson, Southern Alleghenies director of planning and community development.

“Another option is to add fiber connectivity in parts of the region, but it is more costly. Our plan from day one was to focus on areas where service is limited or non existent,” he said. “Fiber is recommended to run into two areas, Williamsburg and Sinking Valley.”

Stephen McKnight, president and CEO of Altoona Blair County Development Corp. said, “While the more populated middle of the county has good service, it doesn’t take long as you move out east and west and the more rural areas for service levels to drop. Serving these areas and the last mile to the residencies and businesses is critical.”

One of the key findings of study was the need to create a regional entity to spearhead the efforts.

“We are filing articles of incorporation for the entity to implement the findings of the plan,” Carson said. “It will be a nonprofit organization with the sole purpose of supporting the development of broadband infrastructure in the region to ensure residents and businesses have access to reliable, high speed internet service.

“The goal is to develop a regional strategy to begin to address the shortcomings in connectivity in our rural areas.”

Carson said SAP&DC received about 10,000 responses to a survey asking people to assess current levels of broadband service and needs.

The survey revealed a couple of major findings from Blair County.

“Nearly one-third of the respondents in the county reported that they do not have access to broadband service, which is defined by the FCC as 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. In addition, 50 percent of the respondents stated that they are not satisfied with their current internet service,” Carson said.

Design Nine Inc. of Blacksburg, Va., recently completed the study, which covered the six counties that make up the SAP&DC — Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset — plus Westmoreland and Fayette.

SAP&DC had been awarded a grant to coordinate a feasibility study to inventory existing broadband assets, to identify gaps in service and to develop a plan for improving broadband service throughout the region.

The county is broken down into four regions — Central, Northwest, Southeast and Southwest.

“I must admit some ‘sticker shock’ when I read the cost, which would run between $3 million and $4 million to cover almost the entire county. But I believe this is a necessary investment in our county’s future,” said Blair County Commissioner Bruce Erb, a long-time proponent of improved broadband service.

For example, the central region project would include the construction of three new towers and the use of an existing tower and is estimated to cost about $766,000, Carson said.

Finding funding will be the key to making the project happen.

“It will be up to the new entity to secure grant funds needed for construction of the network,” Carson said.

“A silver lining from the pandemic has been increased attention to this issue in Harrisburg and Washington. We hope to be able to use some of our county COVID-19 relief grant funds toward increasing and improving broadband coverage in unserved and underserved areas of the county,” Erb said.

Improving broadband service is critical in three main areas.

One of those is education.

“Rural children are at a disadvantage for learning where there is no service available to their home. During COVID-19, with schools and public libraries closed, we learned of parents driving to the nearest Sheetz or fast food restaurant with free internet and sitting in their cars in the parking lot so school work could be completed. This is unacceptable,” Erb said.

The lack of adequate broadband service also impacts economic development.

“COVID-19 provided an opportunity for many Americans to work remotely,” Erb said. “A growing number of people are choosing to live and work in locations that are less populated.

One great example in Blair County is the Williamsburg area with the Lower Trail and great outdoor recreation attractions. But lack of broadband wireless service in many parts of that area limit opportunities for growth and development. And as agriculture becomes increasingly technology dependent, our farmers are significantly disadvantaged.”

The other area of concern is public health.

“Use of telemedicine was already increasing before COVID-19 and became the preferred option during the pandemic for providers and users. But lack of dependable internet service precluded many of our vulnerable rural citizens from accessing care,” Erb said.

The project won’t happen overnight, as Carson estimates it will take three to four years to get it completed — but he said it will happen.

“We’ve been laying the groundwork on the formation of a regional entity to champion broadband efforts for a number of months, and we’re excited to start implementing the recommendations outlined in the plan. With the problem areas identified, we’ll work to secure funding as it’s available and the deployments will be phased accordingly,” Carson said.

“There isn’t a simple ‘fix’ to the problem. The recently completed strategy is a first step, but there’s a lot of work ahead of us.”

McKnight and Erb are optimistic the project will come to fruition.

“I am optimistic that through current and future funding sources and public private partnership models, that we can address the challenge,” McKnight said. “It will take time, but any major infrastructure project takes time to build. New technologies may help speed the timeline up as well.”

“I am optimistic that we can bring improved broadband internet service to most of the county,” Erb said. “We are excited to be part of the new Alleghenies Broadband Corp. non-profit along with the other five counties of the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission that will work to access grants and other funding sources toward fulfilling our vision for countywide broadband internet service.”

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

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