SOMERSET, Pa. – At the low point of the COVID-19 pandemic, Somerset County Library Director Cheryl Morgan saw people leaning up against the building after business hours, trying to connect to their internet hotspots.
Some of them, library staff later learned, were trying in vain to fill out online applications for unemployment and pandemic support, Morgan said.
It helped convince Morgan’s library to acquire funds to extend internet service to the site’s parking lot – but it was also a reminder that greater focus needs to be placed on upgrading high-speed internet service for rural western Pennsylvania homes, she said.
The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority will soon have $1.16 billion in funds to upgrade internet service – and that effort was moving forward on Tuesday by collecting stories such as Morgan’s from community leaders across Pennsylvania, said Brandon Carson, the authority’s executive director.
Carson met with local leaders, business operators and internet service providers from across Somerset, Cambria and Fayette counties on Tuesday during a “Broadband Through Community” meeting – one of 20 sessions planned statewide to gather feedback and insight about local internet needs and concerns.
Carson said that the sessions are a required part of a five-year “action plan” that must be finalized to show how the money will be spent.
The event was co-hosted by Johnstown Area Regional Industries (JARI) at Somerset Trust Co.’s Trust and Investments Building in Somerset Borough.
“We are seeking to close the digital divide, and the feedback we receive through community meetings is essential as the commonwealth develops its Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment and Digital Equity plans,” Carson told the group, which also included commissioners from Somerset and Fayette counties and representatives of nonprofits and educational institutions.
“We are seeking to close the digital divide, and the feedback we receive through community meetings is essential as the commonwealth develops its Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment and Digital Equity plans.”
His message was that rural pockets of Pennsylvania will be big winners in the state’s effort to expand broadband service, but that it won’t happen overnight.
“This is a historic, once-in-a-generation opportunity, and the federal government wants to make sure we get it right,” said Elizabeth Crowe, a senior public engagement specialist with Michael Baker International, which was selected by the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority to help carry the planning process toward fruition.
Every corner of Pennsylvania – not just busy urban areas – needs fast, reliable and affordable internet service, Crowe said.
Anyone receiving less than 100 megabytes of download speed is considered “under-served,” and those with less than 25 megabytes – barely usable for email and web browsing – are considered “unserved,” Crowe said.
Attendees at Tuesday’s meeting were surveyed to gauge their current internet reliability and options, with some of them calling their service “spotty” at best.
State Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Somerset, is one of five voting members of the broadband authority. He noted that, just four years ago, lawmakers were begging for $5 million to improve broadband service in the state.
“Now we’re staring down the barrel at $1.16 billion,” Metzgar said. “This (funding) is going to change the way we live and do business in places like Somerset and Cambria counties.”
He said he plans to work to ensure that the money is spent right.
Blade Broadband founder Jason Jeschonek and 1st Team Advertising’s Ryan Gindlesperger were also interested in learning how the money will be spent.
Local internet service providers could be big beneficiaries of the billion-dollar rollout, which will likely help cover high costs to expand internet offerings to neighborhoods without service.
“Now we’re staring down the barrel at $1.16 billion. This (funding) is going to change the way we live and do business in places like Somerset and Cambria counties.”
“We get calls all of the time from people requesting service, but we can’t get to them yet,” Jeschonek said.
Blade Broadband, which serves more than 1,600 customers across Greater Johnstown, sets aside funds each year to add a few new transmission towers, “but the broadband expansion (effort) could enable us to build out a lot faster,” he said.
Carson said service providers – and communities themselves – can weigh in on their wants and needs this summer, with a goal of developing the five-year “action plan.” That plan will have to be reviewed and approved by federal officials.
After that occurs, perhaps late this year, the hope is to begin spending the funds on broadband improvement programs in 2024, Carson said.