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Blair to expand broadband access

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County leaders are turning to a local agency to initiate and direct what could be a major effort to expand and improve access to high speed internet connections inside the county.

Commissioners on Tuesday spoke favorably of spending the county’s American Rescue Plan allocation on broadband infrastructure and related improvements, as proposed by representatives of Alleghenies Broadband Inc. who attended the commissioners’ meeting.

Based on information from the U.S. Treasury, Blair County is supposed to get $23.6 million as its share of a federal $350 billion effort to counter the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and to lay a foundation for recovery.

“This is some of the best news we could receive,” commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb said Tuesday. “It presents the county with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to provide every household and business inside our boundaries with reliable and high speed internet access.”

In October, the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission announced that it was forming the nonprofit Alleghenies Broadband Inc. to focus on pursuit of high-speed internet improvements within the six-county region of Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon and Somerset counties.

After receiving a federal grant, Alleghenies Broadband Inc. made headway on a master planning effort identifying regional areas with and without high-speed internet access.

The next step, Alleghenies Broadband Inc. Executive Director Brandon Carson told commissioners Tuesday, would be for his organization to partner with private operators who can spell out the efforts needed to improve and introduce high-speed internet connections, including ones addressing Blair County’s hard-to-reach areas.

“Our goal is to penetrate all areas and raise them to a level of competency and competitiveness,” Jim Foreman, Alleghenies Broadband Inc. board member, said.

Once the tasks are identified, Carson said Alleghenies Broadband Inc. will be in position to help Blair County initiate a pursuit of those tasks, including construction, during the next two to three years.

Under the American Rescue Plan’s rules, Blair County’s allocation has to be spent by Dec. 31, 2024.

Erb said he sees this kind of project as beneficial now and in the future.

"This is going to open up opportunities,” Erb said. “It’s not just access people want. It’s high speed access.”

Altoona Blair County Development Corp. President and CEO Stephen McKnight, who also attended the meeting, told commissioners that high speed internet access was recognized before the COVID-19 pandemic as an economic development priority. Since the pandemic, it’s become even more important, he said.

Tuesday’s meeting included no specific or projected costs associated with the proposed high-speed internet project. With the promised allocation of $23.6 million, however, it’s likely that the county could make some major headway before the Dec. 31, 2024, deadline arrives.

“That’s why I call this a once-in-a-life opportunity,” Erb said. “The county general fund could never afford to take on an expense like this.”

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