Bedford County on Friday launched its latest broadband initiative with a goal of expanding high-speed internet access to 95% of the county’s population by 2023.
The effort, dubbed the Bedford County Speed Zone Broadband Initiative, is a partnership with Alleghenies Broadband Inc., a non-profit corporation formed from the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission tasked with supporting the development of broadband infrastructure within the six-county region.
“To make sure Bedford County is strong today and into the future, investments must be made in infrastructure. Broadband is a critical piece of that infrastructure.”
“To make sure Bedford County is strong today and into the future, investments must be made in infrastructure,” Commissioner Deb Baughman said during a “kick-off” ceremony Friday at the Bedford County Courthouse. “Broadband is a critical piece of that infrastructure.”
Brandon Carson, executive director ABI, said the outlook of three tiers of development to expand access to internet service with at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.
The first two phases focusing on fixed wireless service, similar to the work the county completed in 2020 using federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding.
In that project, the county partnered with Crowsnest Broadband LLC of Woodbury to install broadband transmitters in five locations across the county, including at the courthouse.
Carson said the first tier of the Speed Zone project would be to continue adding transmitters to existing towers in Bedford County, specifically underserved areas in the western portion of the county.
“We understand that it’s fairly straightforward and relatively cost effective to equip those existing towers with the equipment necessary for a firm like Crowsnest or another wireless internet service provider to offer internet service,” he said.
A new solicitation for proposals is currently being circulated by ABI, in collaboration with Bedford and other counties in the region. The next phase of the work is designed as a public-private partnership where applicants awarded funding through proposals will receive ongoing support and services from ABI, including grant monitoring and assistance with marketing and outreach to maximize the impact of the county’s investments.
The second tier of work would be constructing new towers to expand service in the southeastern corner of the county.
Carson said ABI has submitted a $1.5 million grant proposal to the Appalachian Regional Commission for the construction of the towers.
The timeline outlined during ABI’s presentation on Friday had that work taking about two years to complete.
Larry Myers, chairman of ABI’s executive board technology team, said the receivers added to the towers could provide coverage for miles in currently underserved areas only supported by DSL internet service.
“If we have a vertical asset somewhere, you can be miles away but point at that tower with this type of receiver and pick up that signal,” he said.
The towers depend on a line of sight connection between the home and the tower, so are limited in the roughest terrain.
Still, ABI said the technology can cover most residents in the county is deployed properly.
“With the master plan and the strategy that we’ve laid out over the past few months, we’re targeting 95% of residents in the county with access to reliable, high-speed internet service,” Carson said.
The third tier focuses on fiber optic internet connectivity and would expand beyond 2023.
“Fiber is costly,” Carson said. “But I will tell you, fiber is the gold standard. It’s what we’re striving to get to. But it takes time, and it takes money.”
Carson said additional work is needed to address internet access for the remaining 5% of the county’s population — about 3,000 residents — not covered in the plan.
“We’re going to continue to work and plan to get into the hardest to reach areas in Bedford County. It’s a challenge. The topography of Bedford County presents a real issue from a wireless standpoint.”
“We’re going to continue to work and plan to get into the hardest to reach areas in Bedford County,” he said. “It’s a challenge. The topography of Bedford County presents a real issue from a wireless standpoint.”
Myers said the threshold of 25 Mbps download speed is the federal standard for establishing underserved broadband communities. He said the efforts of ABI will address the needs of residents throughout the six counties covered by the non-profit.
The plan is only focused on improving internet connectivity to the county, not cell phone coverage in underserved areas.
“We’re not adding cell coverage to Bedford County,” Myers said. “We’re specifically looking at internet access — broadband access.”
But additional cell coverage could potential result from the installation of new towers, Myers said.
“We’re hoping we can attract some of the cell providers to actually use some of the space on those towers that we construct,” he said. “Not through a specific effort of our own, but as a result of it, we’re hoping more cell coverage will be made available throughout Bedford County.”
Carson said various funding sources designated to expand broadband services are available following the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in an increased focus on the ability for residents work and learn from home.
“The timing is right,” he said. There are a plethora of funding resources available for broadband. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by where I don’t get bombarded with two or three funding opportunities that come in.
Commissioner Barry Dallara said the board’s goal is to get the county’s broadband and cellular service on par with the rest of the world. He cited a 12-day trip to China he took more than a decade ago and the connectivity he had while traveling between cities there.
“On a high speed train, I never once did not have cell service,” he said.
Commissioner Alan Frederick said the board will remain committed to progressing broadband efforts.
“We are not interested in latching on to hot-button items only to drop them, to pick up another hot-button item to drop them again,” he said.
State Rep. Jesse Topper and state Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr. both attended the event and spoke about the importance of broadband internet — something brought to light during the coronavirus pandemic.
“One thing we saw out of the pandemic — if there is a silver lining so to speak — was the need for high speed broadband,” Langerholc said. “The ability to work from home, the ability to attend school remotely.”
The senator said the connectivity is also vital for businesses in the county and residents who work from home.
“It’s so vitally important for Bedford County to be on a competitive, even playing field with the rest of the Commonwealth,” he said.
Topper said the amount of funding available through COVID relief packages makes it an opportune time to invest in the infrastructure.
“This is exactly the kind of issue we need to be focused on when it comes to investing some of this one-time money,” he said.