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County to fund wireless expansion: Blair set to spend $330,000 to improve broadband access

[Published in the Altoona Mirror on July 26, 2023]

HOLLIDAYSBURG — Blair County is preparing to spend more than $330,000 of its American Rescue Plan Act allocation for a broadband expansion project proposed by Alleghenies Broadband Inc.

ABI Project Manager Rachel Papuga told Blair County commissioners Tuesday that the proposed wireless expansion project will add equipment to nine cell towers, thereby improving or introducing internet access to unserved and underserved areas.

An estimated 1,700 internet users could be affected by the project’s targeted completion date of Sept. 30, according to those involved in the project.

The cell towers identified to receive additional equipment are located in the Rose Hill, Kettle Road, Eldorado and the Horseshoe Curve areas of Altoona and in the Loop Mountain, Cove Lane, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg and Curryville areas of southern Blair County.

Crowsnest Broadband LLC of Woodbury, the company that proposed the project, expects to work with third-party contractors to secure the required permits and undertake the efforts toward a goal of being able to easily upload and download computerized information.

Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb and Amy Webster, who heard Papuga’s presentation Tuesday, agreed to put the project’s financial commitment up for a vote when they reconvene Thursday.

Their proposed resolution calls for the county to pay $311,782 for the proposed project and to pay ABI’s administrative fee of $21,824.

Erb, a longtime proponent for broadband internet access in the county, said the proposed project has already undergone legal review for compliance with the American Rescue Plan Act.

Webster also expressed interest in seeing the project move forward.

“I think it will make folks a whole lot happier with their use of the internet,” she said.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, Papuga asked commissioners to consider issuing letters of support for two additional projects for which ABI is pursuing state and federal grant funds.

In one of the projects, ABI and Crowsnest are asking the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority for money that will introduce fiber optic internet connections to areas south of Williamsburg and in Juniata Township that have been identified as severely underserved and unserved.

“We’re looking at serving about 500 homes,” Papuga said.

She also said that project could pave the way for additional connections in an expanded geographic area.

In requesting a second letter of support from the county, ABI proposes to work with Comcast Cable Communications LLC so the company can expand its network offering greater access to high-speed internet connections. She said that project would primarily be focused in the Tyrone and Williamsburg areas and in Blair County’s northwestern corner.

The ABI projects were developed based on the results of a regional study, released in September 2020, indicating that about one third of 10,000 Blair County respondents lacked access to broadband internet service, defined by the FCC as 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed.

That study also revealed that 50% of Blair County respondents reported dissatisfaction with their current internet service.

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