Updated: May 17
The Somerset County Commissioners awarded a contract to Michael Baker International of Moon Township on Tuesday for $340,900 for broadband consulting services.
Michael Baker International is a provider of engineering and consulting services. The company's proposal for Somerset County is to use its broadband expertise with more than 20 years of experience in broadband projects and knowledge of how to effectively plan broadband expansions, to construct expanded, affordable broadband access in Somerset County.
"We want our communities to have available service. Somerset County has to take advantage of funds coming through the state broadband authority," said chairman Gerald Walker. "We need to collect the data and we need to partner with ABI (Alleghenies Broadband Inc.) to make it a reality. This is our best shot to get the underserved service."
Billions of dollars for high-speed internet infrastructure became available in 2021 after lawmakers passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The Somerset County commissioners joined a cooperative with five other counties in the Southern Alleghenies, to jointly apply for these broadband internet access grants. They say expanding broadband availability in rural areas could help create jobs, help farmers, expand access to health care and educational services, and create economic opportunities.
What is broadband?
Broadband is high-speed internet access that allows information to be carried at high speed to a personal computer, laptop, tablet, smartphone, smart TV or other web-enabled device. It is different from dial-up internet service because it provides a higher-speed of data transmission. Broadband connections are more secure and consistent than Wi-Fi, an in-home wireless connection.
"We want our communities to have available service. Somerset County has to take advantage of funds coming through the state broadband authority. "We need to collect the data and we need to partner with ABI (Alleghenies Broadband Inc.) to make it a reality. This is our best shot to get the underserved service."
The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority is responsible for creating a statewide broadband plan and distributing federal and state money for broadband expansion projects in unserved and underserved areas so all Pennsylvanians can get connected to affordable and reliable high-speed broadband internet. ABI is a nonprofit corporation working to improve internet connectivity in the Southern Alleghenies Region that includes Somerset County. In partnering with public and private organizations, ABI's intention is for rural communities to have the same access to high-quality internet service as those living in urban areas.
What's the plan?
Michael Baker's plan includes a service area analysis of unserved and underserved geography, analysis of broadband provider data and cost estimate submittals, broadband data quality review and analysis, county broadband planning development and outreach to community stakeholder groups. The agreement is for consulting, planning, geographic information system, aka GIS, support, public engagement and telecom services to be conducted. The project focuses on all phases from planning, grants and funding support and implementation.
"Our struggle as a board has been where to get the money?" said Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes.
She said now that the money is available, a data base is needed to determine what parts of the county need the service.
"This is a community gathering exercise to gather the field data to be able to apply for the billions of dollars available," she said.
Survey of county
Commissioner Colleen Dawson said in 2022, the planning commission conducted a survey of Somerset Countians which helped to compile a GIS map to show what areas are lacking broadband service in the county. This work by the Michael Baker group will be more detailed, she said.
"The questions were done to give us an idea of where the areas were," she said. "Michael Baker is intensive, more in depth. We're not the experts, they are. They've done similar work in Western Pennsylvania."
The commissioners plan to kick off the broadband initiative in the next couple of weeks. The plan is to have the project done by the end of the year, in time to write applications for the next year's grant cycle.
"We've struggled in the past to find providers who will invest to get to the areas where we need service. It has to depend on partnerships. It's expensive to go into the underserved areas. There are grants available and money will be there to provide the services to help them build the infrastructure of the provider."
"This will engage our providers as well, to hopefully be a part of this process," Tokar-Ickes said. "Internet providers can apply for this money. Don't wait for the study to be done."
The priority is to determine those who do not have service or those who are underserved, the commissioners said. The project will map where they are.
"We'll have an ongoing map of the county so people can follow the progress," Tokar-Ickes said.
We need service
The consensus among all the commissioner candidates for this year's primary is that broadband must be a county priority. The county has spent millions of dollars and millions more have already been pledged to bring reliable, high-speed internet to all the residents of Somerset County.
"We've struggled in the past to find providers who will invest to get to the areas where we need service," Walker said. "It has to depend on partnerships. It's expensive to go into the underserved areas. There are grants available and money will be there to provide the services to help them build the infrastructure of the provider."
For Somerset County, now that funding was available the commissioners need to identify the areas with the most need. There was no comprehensive map to show where the gaps are and where providers were expanding services. Some areas have limited wireless internet access, others have no internet and some areas even have lines in the ground that are not in use.