Firm hired to build broadband towers
[Published in the Altoona Mirror, July 13th, 2022]
BEDFORD — The Bedford County commissioners appointed Mission Critical Partners Tuesday as project manager for construction of eight broadband towers in unserved areas throughout the county.
The new broadband towers is the second of a three-phase plan developed by the commissioners in partnership with Huntingdon and Fulton counties, Crowsnest Broadband, Alleghenies Broadband and Upward Broadband, Commissioner Deb Baughman said.
The project, Rural Broadband Infrastructure Expansion in the Alleghenies, proposes to expand fixed-wireless service to unserved and underserved residents and businesses in south-central Pennsylvania, Mirror records show.
The partners have been awarded a National Telecommunications and Information Administration grant for over $20 million, with Bedford County receiving $5.6 million, Baughman said.
The partners have also provided a cost-share of $2.3 million toward the project, records show.
“The goal is to target areas that augment work already in progress and create vertical assets still needed in unserved areas,” Baughman said. “Detailed locations are still unavailable because we are in the beginning process of contacting property owners in suitable areas and completing environmental studies.”
The new towers will be constructed in more remote sites, including places in the northwest and central parts of the county “where there are holes” in access, Baughman said.
The $5.6 million in grant money will not only go toward the towers’ construction but also the possible construction of roads to access the towers and administration costs.
Baughman said that the partners are also working on an Appalachian Regional Commission power grant that would go toward the construction of three or four towers in the southeastern part of the county.
“It’s very difficult with our topography here — all the ridges, the valleys, the hollows — not only that but the low population density and just like electricity, we believe that everyone deserves this modern amenity.”
Mission Critical Partners specializes in the construction of these towers, Baughman said, and will work with Alleghenies Broadband to oversee the whole project.
The Port Matilda-based business management consultant group was selected after the partners put out a request for qualifications to companies that specialize in the construction of broadband towers, Baughman said.
The two responses received by Alleghenies Broadband were sent to the commissioners.
“We reviewed both of them and felt that the best match and wisest use of our dollars was with Mission Critical Partners,” Baughman said.
As the project is being paid for by grant money, it has an end date of 2024 to be up and operational. While the partners would “love to move ahead more quickly,” difficulties with construction, the supply chain, finding contractors and finding parts is putting the project behind, Baughman said.
“I wish it could have been done years ago, but we’re creating an infrastructure,” she said. “Broadband is an infrastructure, and it’s needed here.”
Phase 1 of the project was adding equipment to 21 existing towers, Baughman said, which successfully provided broadband access to a number of people in remote areas.
“It’s very difficult with our topography here — all the ridges, the valleys, the hollows — not only that but the low population density and just like electricity, we believe that everyone deserves this modern amenity,” Baughman said. “Not really an amenity but a need today to have internet access and that’s what we’re going for, to get it out to as many people as possible.”
One of the goals of the project is to modernize the region and allow remote workers the opportunity to relocate to a lower cost of living area.
“Bedford County has been left behind because we’re missing a number of elements that people expect when they’re choosing a place to live and one of those is broadband and being able to connect,” Baughman said. “There are some people who have now moved here that are working remotely, and they would not be able to live here if they could not access the internet and at the speeds that they need for the things that they’re doing today.”
The impact of the project will especially be felt by regional libraries and the communities they serve. At the Bedford Public Library, an annual 8,000 to 12,000 people use its computers, Library Director Matt Godissart said, which doesn’t include all of the Wi-Fi usage the library provides.
“I think I read fairly recently that 10% to 12% of the county can’t get any sort of internet service. There are still people with actual dialup modems in their houses. … Of course, folks need the opportunity for school and applying for or actually working,” Godissart said. “We’ve had a number of people come in to do some work-from-home stuff over the past few years.”
Through a grant from the Center for Community Action, the library also has hotspots that patrons have been able to check out if they need to home-school, work remotely or have telehealth, Godissart said.
“In Bedford we’ve had a handful,” he said. “It’s not a big, big number. In Everett though, at their library, they always have a waiting list for them.”
Everett Free Library Director Amber Snyder confirmed that it is “always running out of their hotspots and that lower-cost, better broadband access is needed in the community.
The service the county will be providing will help those who are more socioeconomically disadvantaged as there will be no cost to have lines run, Snyder said.
“Once they’re completed, it will be a wonderful resource for the community because right now we have several students that have hotspots through Community Action, but they were working with cell service and the hotspots had better service,” Snyder said. “Educationwise, it will really benefit those kids.”
Godissart said that the broadband services the project is partnering with will also be beneficial because they are “extremely affordable,” thus allowing better opportunities for those in the area.
“During the pandemic, we had people literally sitting in our parking lot using our Wi-Fi,” Godissart said. “We weren’t allowed to be here … so they would pull their cars up as close as they could. I would come in to do the book drops and see a couple of families in vans and stuff doing homework together. It was wild.”
Once Phase 2 is completed, the project will move on to its third and final phase, which is fiber design, Baughman said.
“There will be some folks we can’t reach with towers so we are currently in the process … of having a design created as we speak for all the different counties of how we can tie it together with fiber,” Baughman said.