Slow Advance of Rural Area Broadband
[Originally published in the Morrison Cove Herald, October 21, 2021]
The Information Age that began in the middle of the 20th century has delivered incredible benefits. Business efficiency has improved, students have access to more learning resources than ever before, and global communication is instantaneous and inexpensive.
Unfortunately, rural areas like Morrisons Cove still lag behind the rest of the country in terms of the infrastructure that makes it possible.
Residents in urban areas have been accessing the internet via wireless and fiber-based broadband connections since the early 2000s, but many Cove residents still rely on slow, unreliable, decades-old dial-up service that limits what they can do online, while others have no access at all.
The good news is that the Cove's broadband infrastructure is expanding, but it will take several more years until it's available everywhere.
In October 2020, the Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission formed Alleghenies Broadband Inc. (ABI), a new nonprofit organization, to support the development of this infrastructure.
ABI is working through public-private partnerships to bring high-speed internet to underserved rural areas in a six-county region that includes Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon, and Somerset Counties. Projects are being completed as funding is available.
Brandon Carson, executive director of ABI, said plans to build out rural broadband infrastructure focus on expanding fixed wireless internet service through existing providers; constructing new telecommunications towers in areas that lack them; and planning for the deployment of fiber connectivity to communities in the future.
The switch to virtual schooling during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated how disadvantaged local students are when it comes to internet-supported learning.
"It's important for students to have an understanding of how to function [online], so we do provide instruction through learning platforms requiring students to use technology," said Todd Beatty, superintendent for the Northern Bedford County School District. "Approximately 10 percent of our students have no access at home, and many families have limited internet and/or slow speeds. This problem is exacerbated when several family members attempt to use the internet at the same time."
Darren McLaurin, superintendent for the Claysburg-Kimmel School District, said Claysburg's teachers work with students with slow or limited access to provide the same educational experience that all other students are receiving.
From a workforce perspective, broadband will have a huge impact for rural communities.
"A lot of jobs are posted online now, so anyone who's searching for a job or needs to work on a resume or upload one needs broadband access for that," said Gwen Fisher, site administrator for PA CareerLink in Bedford and Blair Counties. "A lot of companies have moved recruiting online as well. The days of paper applications are numbered."
People who lack broadband access to apply for jobs are going to libraries, coming to CareerLink, or looking for other places in their community to get it, she said, which is an inconvenience for them.
But beyond simply changing the way people find and do work, broadband can also open up new avenues to start and run a new business, and serve customers anywhere in the world.
In his book "The Third Wave," Steve Case, the founder of AOL, argues that broadband will eventually level the playing field for technology entrepreneurs from rural communities who have had to move to Silicon Valley and other technology centers to be taken seriously by investors.
Bedford County has taken an aggressive approach, establishing its Speed Zone initiative to make broadband available to 95 percent of county businesses and residents by 2023.
In August, the county selected Crowsnest Broadband of Woodbury as the provider for the first phase of its wireless expansion initiative, which called for the purchase and installation of wireless equipment on 21 existing towers.
According to Bette Slayton, president and CEO of the Bedford County Development Association, broadband was designated one of the top five priorities in the Alleghenies Ahead: Comprehensive Plan for the Southern Alleghenies Region adopted in 2018.
"It was already top of mind when CARES Act monies were released, which gave the Bedford County Commissioners a chance to move quickly into an implementation phase," she said. "High speed internet is no longer a want, it is a must-have for employers, employees, the self-employed, students, and residents. It is of critical importance as we seek to reverse stagnant and declining population trends in our county."
The other five member counties haven't taken such a bullish stance, but Bruce Erb, chair of the Blair County Board of Commissioners, said his county is now working with ABI to develop its own broadband expansion plans and find ways to make broadband more affordable for residents.
To date, Blair County has worked with Crowsnest Broadband to help fund eight separate projects that provided new or upgraded services in eight different areas of the county that were underserved.
"When schools went remote ... we learned of families driving to the nearest Sheetz or fast food establishment so their children could take advantage of the free internet offered to do their school assignments," Erb said. "This should never have to happen, and our goal is to provide every home we possibly can with dependable access. As the use of telehealth increases, having that access can also mean the difference between early intervention for medical conditions rather than hospitalization or worse."
Dwayne Zimmerman, owner and founder of Crowsnest Broadband, said CARES Act and American Rescue Plan projects have enabled his company to expand service in Blair and Bedford Counties faster than expected.
"We went from a small company with two towers and a small budget to a company with 30 towers in a year's time," Zimmerman said.
Crowsnest now has decent coverage in Morrisons Cove, he said, although there are still weak coverage areas in Clover Creek and Henrietta, along the mountain in Fredericksburg, and in New Enterprise and Loysburg.
"Demand is big and the Cove is years behind technology wise," Zimmerman said. "The cable company sends its old equipment from places like Altoona to the Cove, so even the cable that's in the Cove isn't that great."
Crowsnest will be partnering with ABI as it works on a comprehensive master plan for continuing to expand broadband in the six-county region.
"I think the next three years are going to be a lot of fixed wireless, but I think we'll see a lot of fiber happen at a big scale in the three to 10 year window," Zimmerman said. "We envision transitioning from a fixed wireless provider to a fiber provider in the next five to 15 years."
According to Carson, proposals submitted for other counties, including Blair, are currently under review and ABI is engaged in discussions with the counties about potential funding options.
"Access is critical to growth and prosperity in our rural communities," Carson said. "Many agricultural operations require connections that far exceed DSL [capabilities], and bandwidth requirements are going to increase as technology continues to advance and operations become more automated."
Both the public and private sectors acknowledge there is a lack of reliable broadband access in rural communities like Morrisons Cove, he added, but there is an appetite to address it, and ABI is working to help each of the counties develop master plans similar to Bedford County's Speed Zone initiative.
"I think the need for broadband is only going to increase, and it's going to happen rapidly," Zimmerman said. "We plan to do what we can to help out our rural area."