The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA) brought folks together to talk about broadband use and experiences in Huntingdon County Thursday evening.
The session, held at Bricktown Events in Mount Union, was coordinated by the Huntingdon County Commissioners and the Huntingdon County Chamber of Commerce.
At the center of discussion was PBDA’s plans to spend $1.16 billion from the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program distributed to Pennsylvania. The goal of that project is to help establish universal broadband access, meaning affordable broadband access for all residents, businesses and communities.
Brandon Peters, deputy director of PBDA, stressed public input from meetings such as Thursday’s is important to develop an action plan to address broadband service needs in unserved and underserved areas.
“We want to make sure we hear from the stakeholders, the constituents, all across the state, so we’re holding 20 meetings such as the one,” Peters said. “It’s important for us to spend the federal money in a fiscally responsible manner to help get broadband service to those who don’t have it or have poor, unreliable service.”
Huntingdon County planning director Jim Lettiere said one of the county’s top priorities is facilitation of expanding broadband and cellular phone service in areas of the county that do not have reliable coverage now.
“We want to make sure we hear from the stakeholders, the constituents, all across the state, so we’re holding 20 meetings such as the one. It’s important for us to spend the federal money in a fiscally responsible manner to help get broadband service to those who don’t have it or have poor, unreliable service.”
He also spoke about Alleghenies Broadband Inc., a six-county nonprofit entity of the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission that includes Huntingdon County, with a goal of developing reliable, high-speed internet services.
“Their aim is to ensure that rural communities have the same high-quality internet service as urban areas,” Lettiere explained.
He explained that, through the National Telecommunications and Infrastructure Administration, the county received an over $11 million grant. Lettiere said that money will be used to fund ten new tower locations and six existing towers which will be outfitted with backhaul equipment serving close to 3,000 households in the county.
“The commissioners also used American Recovery Plan Act funding amounting to $1.4 million for Upward Broadband to expand services on 15 towers expanding services to about 4,000 households,” said Lettiere. “And Crowsnest Broadband received $85,000 in ARPA funding to upgrade services on existing towers serving around 350 households.”
Elizabeth Crow with Michael Baker International, a consulting firm contracted to help PBDA gather information and put together a five-year broadband action plan, explained several introductory slides about broadband service and the importance of strategic meetings such as the one held locally. Then, audience members were asked to fill out a broadband connectivity and digital access survey from the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).
As that process began, Peters and a team from Michael Baker Consulting welcomed input and feedback from those in attendance.
A woman of the Point Road area of Juniata Township lamented how she still must rely on dial-up internet service for her personal use, and the speeds are extremely slow. For those unfamiliar with the jargon, an average internet speed of 25 mbs down and 3 mbs up is considered “satisfactory” for the broadband access project. The woman said she struggles with less than 1 mbs down and up and has no access to better wired or wireless broadband service due to her location.
Across the room, David McNeal, who owns Reflag America, spoke up. He operates the business from his property on Mine Back Ridge off Route 103 in Shirley Township.
“My unreliable and slow internet service definitely affects my business,” he said, blaming the lack of broadband for causing delays in getting and processing orders and getting shipments out the door.
“My living room turned into a classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Cassville Country Store owner Betsy Whitsel.
When her employees in the Trough Creek Valley area needed an internet connection for their children to attend school virtually, they resorted to Whitsel’s home where there was broadband service since the families didn’t have any service where they lived.
“So the kids were spaced six feet apart and had school at my house,” Whitsel said.
That story aside, she expressed frustration over not having internet service at her place of business.
“We rely so much on doing so many things over the internet,” Whitsel said. “From my ordering to paying bills and taking care of my business taxes, the lack of internet is definitely a problem for my small business.”
Dwight Rittenhouse, a director of the Rural Broadband Cooperative (RBC), said all the talk of millions of dollars of grant money to help sounds good, but none of it benefits efforts of the local grassroots group that was formed as a nonprofit cooperative. RBC is working to provide alternative, reliable and affordable “fixed wireless” broadband internet services for rural areas of the county.
“We rely so much on doing so many things over the internet. From my ordering to paying bills and taking care of my business taxes, the lack of internet is definitely a problem for my small business.”
“We’ve looked at some of the funding, but it actually costs us money in the long run,” Rittenhouse said.
The reason, he told the group, is although the cooperative might be awarded money to buy something, the continuing expenses like tower rent for the equipment, operating costs, upkeep and repairs would be additional expenses the cooperative would have to pay.
“We actually just turned down one grant for that reason,” Rittenhouse said. “That’s not how we’re set up. Our organization is based on each member helping each other by placing equipment on members’ silos and existing poles for example, not needing to generate more funds just to build more towers and spend more money just be able to get a grant.”
Chamber director Yvonne Martin said the comments shared Thursday are examples of why her organization helped coordinate the meeting.
“People and businesses rely on the internet,” Martin said. “We’ll continue to do what we can to keep efforts moving for improved broadband service in the area,” she said.
For more information about the PBDA and its activities, visit www.dced.pa.gov and search for PBDA.