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Meetings address broadband gaps

Blair Planning and Alleghenies Broadband Inc. will hold four public meetings this month to help identify gaps in broadband and cellphone service in Blair County, so they can target grants to help fill those areas.

They want to know where reliable internet or cellphone service isn’t available due to lack of adequate infrastructure; they want to find people who lack service because they can’t afford it; and they want to identify people who don’t know how to use the internet effectively, Blair Planning Director Dave McFarland said at a meeting Tuesday of the Altoona Planning Commission.

The outreach meetings in Altoona, Tyrone, Williamsburg and East Freedom will provide information to support local requests to the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority for a share of $1.1 billion allocated to Pennsylvania through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for broadband improvements, according to McFarland.

One key benefit could be to shrink the number of times local parents need to take extraordinary measures to enable their children to participate in online learning on days when in-person classes are canceled, according to McFarland and Blair regional planner MacKenzie Caron.

A mother in the southern part of the county has had to drive her young children to the parking lot of a large retail store so the kids can participate in class, periodically restarting the engine so the car doesn’t get too cold, McFarland said.

Those kinds of stories aren’t rare, according to Caron.

Internet and cell service can be absent altogether, spotty geographically or inconsistent, said McFarland, who lives in Williamsburg and has experienced such unreliability.

Problems tend to be most acute as customers move to the more digitally demanding activities: texting to voice to data sharing with pictures and video, according to McFarland.

In most cases, lack of adequate service reflects private providers’ calculations that the investment necessary to provide good service wouldn’t provide an adequate return, McFarland said.

That was illustrated by one provider breaking off a fiber optic run at a point on a country road beyond which there were few houses, leaving the unspent spool of cable it had been using just off the berm, McFarland said.

Similarly, a cellphone service provider may refrain from installing towers that would serve only a few homes.

In such cases, companies require a subsidy as incentive to finish the job, McFarland said.

In many cases, an alternative to cable in sparsely populated areas is fixed wireless service, which uses an antenna mounted on the customer’s building, pointed at the provider’s nearby internet towers, according to a local provider’s website.

The fix for people who simply can’t afford internet or cellphone service might be a subsidy program like those administered for various purposes by social service agencies, McFarland said.

The fix for people who don’t know how to use the internet may be lessons taught at local libraries, McFarland said.

Helping them will be the least expensive prong of the three-pronged effort, he said.

If you go

Blair Planning and Alleghenies Broadband Inc. will hold four meetings this month to learn where there are gaps in internet and cell service in Blair County.

— 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Altoona Area Public Library, 1600 Fifth Ave.

— 6:30 p.m. Dec. 14, Northern Blair Senior Center, 505 W. Third St., Tyrone

— 6:30 p.m. Dec. 18, Williamsburg Senior Center, 423 W. Second St., Williamsburg

— 6:30 p.m. Dec. 19, Southern Blair Senior Center, 15229 Dunnings Highway, East Freedom

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