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City asked to reserve $5.8M for broadband

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

A nonprofit organization that is seeking to upgrade broadband in the region asked City Council this week to set aside about $5.8 million from its American Rescue Plan allocation to help in the effort.

The money represents 15 percent of the $39 million the city expects to get from the ARP, and it would be used for projects in Altoona, in collaboration with expected shares of ARP funding from Blair County and the Altoona Area School District, according to Jim Foreman, Blair County representative for Alleghenies Broadband Inc., a 501(c)(3) organized under the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission.

Council made no commitment, but members indicated they’d consider the request, after viewing a map that Alleghenies Broadband will provide, showing the status of broadband service in the city.

Alleghenies is looking to upgrade service in areas that are “unserved, underserved and (where service is) intermittent,” Foreman said.

“The needs are overwhelming,” he said.

Areas tend to be underserved where it isn’t profitable for private providers to invest in the infrastructure, Foreman said previously.

The needs would seem greatest in rural areas — as indicated by a statement in the description of ABI on the Southern Alleghenies website: “(The organization) aims to ensure that rural communities have the same access to high-quality internet service as those living in urban areas.”

But that doesn’t mean service is ideal in the city, officials said.

“We all know there are pockets” where service is inadequate, Foreman told council.

A map provided by the organization a few weeks ago seems to show that the central Blair County area occupied by Altoona is generally “served” with speeds greater than 25 megabits per second, but the map doesn’t include municipal boundaries, and there are areas at least in the vicinity that are labeled unserved or underserved.

The hilly topography of the region can lead to inconsistencies, officials at the meeting said.

At some point, the organization will come back with “specific projects” and “hard numbers,” Foreman said.

Projects could include laying of fiber-optic line and installation of towers and other equipment, Foreman said.

“Alleghenies Broadband, Inc. aims to ensure that rural communities have the same access to high-quality internet service as those living in urban areas.”

Those could be leased to private providers.

“It sounds worthwhile,” said Councilman Joe Carper.

Reliable connections and adequate speed are something “I’m in favor of,” said Councilman Jesse Ickes.

The organization is considered a utility and could take property by eminent domain, “if we need a tower and someone is being obstinate,” Foreman said.

“We don’t want to go there, but if need be,” he said.

There seems to be a “pretty clear path” for using American Rescue Plan money to upgrade broadband, Foreman said.

Eligibility for some other kinds of uses seem to be “getting trickier and trickier,” he said.

The uses of broadband that are important to an area’s economic development include working remotely, remote schooling, telemedicine, worker recruitment and business transactions, Foreman said.

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