Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Content tagged with "pennsylvania"
Nonprofit Alleghenies Broadband is leading a cohesive effort across a six-county region in south-central Pennsylvania to bring high-speed Internet access to areas that are unserved or underserved by reliable networks.
Part of its work is a recently completed Request for Proposals (RFP) in search of forming a series of public-private partnerships to help identify target areas and offer robust solutions to bring new infrastructure to the businesses and residents who need it most. As that process continues to unfold, however, the nonprofit is already working with city and county leaders to pursue a range of wireline and fixed wireless options that will result in better service and publicly owned infrastructure.
A Regional Approach
Formed in October 2020, Alleghenies Broadband is part of the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission. By coordinating efforts in six counties (Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon, and Somerset, collectively representing about 500,000 residents), it hopes to address the broadband gaps scattered across the region. Somerset, Fulton, and Huntingdon seem to be in the worst shape at present: while many residents have access to cable service, large swaths of the counties are stuck with DSL or satellite service only, leading to median download speeds of just 3.7-8 Megabits per second (Mbps) (see Fulton and Huntingdon coverage maps below, with satellite-only areas in grey). The remaining three counties also have significant gaps where no wireline access is available, representing thousands of households with poor or no service.
Maine broadband authority redefines statewide broadband as symmetrical 100/100 Mbps connection
California Legislature and Governor reach $5.25 billion agreement on statewide middle-mile network
New Hampshire matching grant initiative aiming to promote partnerships signed by Governor
The State Scene
The Maine Senate recently enrolled a bill (L.D. 1432) amending the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Access Fund to only allow communities, municipalities, and regional utilities access to grants through the program. The bill became law without State Governor Janet Mills’ signature on June 24.
The legislation removes limits placed on the number of grants able to be awarded per project, but limits the amount of funds that may be distributed per project to 50 percent of total costs. The bill, aiming to support the deployment of municipal gigabit fiber optic networks, also requires the ConnectMaine (ConnectME) Authority to establish minimum upload and download speed definitions to foster widespread availability of symmetric high-speed Internet access, beginning in 2025.
With vaccines rolling out tier by tier, state by state, and restaurants, bars and public spaces starting to reopen one by one, there seems to be a desire to say, “Wow, things are going back to normal!” Unfortunately, the public health crisis exacerbated healthcare, education, and economic inequities that have long existed in low-income and communities of color across the country and have no chance of going away any time soon. But some community leaders have stepped up and come to the table with one piece of the puzzle in bridging these inequities — better Internet access to these communities.
Over the summer, we covered several communities that jumped to action and came up with quick ways to implement long-term solutions.
The city of San Rafael, which sits on the coast of northern California in Marin County, continues to strengthen, expand, and research the use of the network it built over the summer and fall for one unserved area hit hard by the economic, education, and health impact of Covid-19. And on the other side of the country, Meta Mesh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania continues construction on a pilot project that is hoping to connect unserved families by the end of this summer.
Focusing on the Future
In San Rafael, California, the city, Marin County and a nonprofit organization — the Canal Alliance — all joined forces to bring free Wi-Fi to the Canal neighborhood.
In the heart of Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the site of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg and where President Abraham Lincoln later delivered his famous 1863 Gettysburg address declaring “a new birth of freedom,” plans are being drawn up in the battle for better broadband.
In the borough of New Oxford, ten miles east of the county seat (Gettysburg), the non-profit media group Community Media of South Central Pennsylvania is leading the charge to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) victory for the approximately 102,000 residents spread out across the rural county’s 520 square miles.
But with restrictive state laws that protect incumbent providers from competition by not allowing municipalities to provide broadband service, and scarce funding for non-governmental entities to build broadband infrastructure, victory is far from certain.
Small Steps, Big Broadband Problem
The goal right now, Community Media’s Director of Operations Mark Wherley told us this week, is to secure $3 million to bring fiber access to 1,200 homes in New Oxford and Abbottstown, two of the 34 municipalities that make up Adams County, encircling Gettysburg.
Working in conjunction with the Adams County Economic Alliance, Community Media is looking to tap the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for funds to start building the network. Through RACP, Community Media would be eligible to receive between $1 million and $5 million, provided they are able to raise a 50 percent matching contribution.
A pair of broadband bills in Pennsylvania (one of which has been signed into law by the governor, and the other having passed one chamber) represent a collective step forward for broadband by updating regulations and establishing a broadband grant program so as to promote network expansion in rural and unserved parts of the state of Pennsylvania.
Fewer Restrictions, More Money
The first is House Bill 2438 [pdf], which allows electric cooperatives to use existing easements for an affiliate to deliver broadband service without re-negotiating with property owners. The bill also allows cable companies to use cooperative-owned poles with permission and in accordance with existing rates and regulations. It’s designed to make it faster, cheaper, and easier to bring Internet access to rural parts of the state.
Johnstown Area Regional Industries entrepreneurial coach Blake Fleegle said of the legislation:
Every county in our region is looking at bringing high-dollar earners to our region. Employers are finding people can be just as effective working in Johnstown as they would be in Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh. But they need to connect, and that's where broadband comes into play.
Chad Carrick, President and CEO of REA Energy Cooperative, likewise welcomed the legislation while emphasizing the role electric co-ops will play in the state:
It may be hard for some to believe, but there is a good 40% of Indiana and Cambria counties that either don't have broadband Internet access or it's not up to snuff, according to our surveys to our membership.
2438 passed the state House in June, the Senate at the end of October, and was signed into law by the governor at the end of last month.
When Craig Eccher, CEO Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, joined Christopher on the podcast last fall, he had an exciting project to talk about: the electric cooperative, after strong calls from its membership asking their utility to deliver broadband, stepped up and committed to an $80 million, 3,250-mile fiber build across the rugged terrain of rural Pennsylvania, the first leg propelled by $52.6 million in federal and state grants. Tri-Co Connections, the subsidiary building the network and serving as provider, has begun connecting residents in an aggressive plan to serve 10,000 users in the next three years. The move makes Tri-County the first electric co-op in Pennsylvania to enter the fiber space, and it's doing so in dramatic fashion.
More Humble Beginnings
Tucked away in Kishacoquillas Valley (also known as Big Valley) between Stone and Jacks Mountains lies a 120-foot repurposed HAM radio tower, now the base of operations for the Rural Broadband Cooperative (RBC), a group bringing fixed wireless to a rural Pennsylvania community. RBC remains one of the many groups around the country making use of community ties to address connectivity issues in places where monopoly Internet service providers have for decades refused to invest.
RBC’s effort began in 2017. When asked about bringing high-speed broadband to the area, Comcast replied that it would need $80,000 to lay a line half a dozen miles long, according to one founding member of RBC. So the group — among them a retired professor, a former telecommunications manager, and a musician — formed the non-profit cooperative and moved forward with a different plan.
They leased a patch of land 1,900 feet up on the side of Stone Mountain with a view over the crest and a repurposed former HAM radio tower to bring low-latency fixed wireless Internet to the area. In total, the effort cost $60,000, with the money raised by the cooperative’s initial members. The tower itself is run by solar and wind, with a battery backup. The group’s backhaul connection comes from a 100 gigabit fiber line from Keystone Initiative for Network-Based Education and Research.
Most of those living within a 15-mile radius of the tower can receive service, with those lacking direct line-of-sight still eligible so long as they can establish a connection to neighbors with two or fewer degrees of separation.
Currently, RBC offers two tiers of service: a basic connection clocking in at 5 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload for $40/mo, or a 25/3 Mbps connection for $75/mo. New customers also pay a one-time $300 setup fee. It’s a far cry from the $100/mo for 3 Mbps connection some area residents are stuck with.
Broadband Access in Rural PA
As state lawmakers debate in committee rooms and Capitol chambers around the country, various broadband and Internet network infrastructure bills are appearing on agendas. Some are good news for local communities interested in developing publicly owned networks while other preemption bills make projects more difficult to plan, fund, and execute. We've gathered together some notable bills from several states that merit watching - good, bad, and possibly both.
For years, local communities were not allowed to bond to develop publicly owned broadband infrastructure in New Hampshire. Last year, the state adopted SB 170, which opened the door a crack so that municipalities can bond to develop infrastructure for public-private partnerships (PPPs) in "unserved" areas. This year, the New Hampshire General Court has the opportunity to push open the door a bit wider with SB 459.
SB 459 allows local communities to potentially define "unserved" areas themselves by putting more responsibility on Internet access providers. Municipalities must currently engage in a request for information process in which they must reach out to all Internet service providers operating in the community. SB 459, if adopted, would allow a community to consider areas "unserved" if a provider does not respond to such a request to clarify which premises are unserved. With the "unserved" designation, municipalities can bond to develop infrastructure to serve those premises.
Local officials in eight mostly-rural counties in southwest Pennsylvania are combining efforts to determine first, what connectivity is available and, second, what can be done to improve it.
Seeking Updated Information
Westmoreland, Fayette, Cambria, Somerset, Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon, and Fulton counties have been working with consulting firm Design Nine to develop a survey to share with residents in the region. The Regional Broadband Task Force, established by the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission (SAP&DC), gathered limited data in the past. They estimate that six percent of folks in the region live in places without wired broadband Internet access.
An earlier study determined that:
...2.3 percentage of the 354,751 residents fall below that level of service [25 Mbps upload and 3 Mbps download]. About 1.6 percentage of Blair County’s 123,842 population and 2.2 percentage of Cambria County’s 134,550 population are lacking that basic level of connectivity. At the other end of the spectrum, 55.2 percentage of Fulton County’s 14,506 residents are without the service.
Funding for the study comes from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). The Task Force received $50,000 from ARC and the member counties contributed a matching $50,000 for the study. They began looking for a firm to help develop the study last fall and chose Design Nine hoping to determine:
- Level of service being provided; the needs of local businesses and the reliability of the current services being provided;
- An inventory of broadband assets already in place;
- An assessment community broadband requirements for bandwidth needs;
- Determine best technologies to meet the coal impacted community needs; and
- Cost estimates for different deployment strategies
Businesses Want More in Westmoreland
An op-ed written by Katie Kienbaum, Research Associate at ILSR, was published in The Intelligencer. Katie addresses the inadequacy of satellite Internet access and why federal funding should go to real broadband solutions. Find the full piece below:
The digital divide is about to get much larger in rural Pennsylvania, and the federal government is bankrolling it.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission, FCC, held a reverse auction that distributed approximately $1.5 billion to Internet access providers to connect underserved rural communities across the country. While this was an important step toward improving Internet access in many communities, in others it was a perverse step backwards — especially in Pennsylvania.
Rural communities desperately need better broadband to survive in the digital future. But instead of investing in high-quality networks that will allow rural families, farms and businesses to thrive, the FCC is burning millions on slow, unreliable satellite connectivity in Pennsylvania and 19 other states.
Nationally, the FCC awarded satellite company Viasat more than $120 million — including about $20 million for Pennsylvania — to provide internet access that most wouldn’t even consider broadband. Compared to other technologies, satellite has slower speeds, higher latency, much lower data caps and less reliability, all at higher prices. This low-quality connectivity makes it difficult to complete everyday tasks, like finding employment, accessing health care and finishing schoolwork.
It’s also all but impossible to run a business on satellite Internet access. As a result, most people resort to satellite internet access only when there are no other options available. Because of the technical limitations of satellite, it’s questionable whether Viasat will even be able to meet the modest quality standards established by the FCC.
It wasn’t inevitable that these communities got stuck with subsidized satellite. In the same auction, the FCC awarded $225 million to electric cooperatives, which will leverage the federal funding to deploy mostly gigabit-speed fiber, the fastest and most reliable broadband technology, in similarly rural areas.