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Somerset County approves joining regional broadband study

SOMERSET, Pa. – For years, Cambria, Somerset and four nearby counties have been working to bring reliable high-speed broadband internet service to the region’s rural dead zones.

A deal approved by those counties will mean a seven-month study to find a potential solution.

On Tuesday, the Somerset County commissioners voted to approve a agreement to pay the county’s $50,000 share of the study’s cost, aiming to determine what it would take to build an expansive fiber optic “ring” from Cambria to Fulton County.

Bids will be sought by Alleghenies Broadband Inc. to find a company able to study the needs and costs – likely tens of millions of dollars – to install a fiber “backbone” capable of bringing fast, dependable service, Somerset County President Commissioner Gerald Walker said.

Alleghenies Broadband is a nonprofit formed by Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntington and Somerset counties to pursue efforts to improve broadband service.

Given parts of the region’s rugged rural terrain, the availability of reliable high-speed service isn’t a given outside urban and suburban communities.

That’s a factor that has been shown to set back remote education and business growth in those areas – an issue magnified by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is going to be a win for our economy,” Cambria County President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky said of the need to move the study forward.

“It’s going to be a win for health care, the public sector, students and remote workers.”

Both Cambria and Somerset counties have invested grant dollars to improve wireless internet service to some under-served areas over the past two years.

“Wireless is fine,” Walker said. “But reliability and dependability of wired (internet) are what we really need to go after.”

It’s the “gold standard” – and also an expensive endeavor to run fiber optic lines across community and county borders, he said.

Fortunately, federal leaders have recognized that, increasing support for such projects, Commissioner Colleen Dawson said.

Somerset County’s portion of the study will be paid with American Rescue Plan dollars.

Cambria County, which also has American Rescue Funds that could be used for the study, is expected to have the regional agreement on one of its future meeting agendas for consideration, Chernisky said.

While the Alleghenies Broadband consortium of counties would oversee the project to build the internet backbone – if the price is right – county officials aren’t planning on getting into the internet service provider business, Walker said.

Once the fiber optic network is in place, private internet providers would be able to step in and use the infrastructure to expand into areas lacking high-speed service, he said.

Efforts are in the works to better identify those areas, Dawson said.

That includes household surveys that would be sent out to homes later this year to determine residents’ current access to internet, if any, as well as its reliability, she said.

The necessary legwork – particularly the $321,000 fiber broadband study – is all a vital part of the process to obtain funding for the larger construction project, Chernisky said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

But by working together as a region, Cambria and Somerset commissioners said, they are confident the money will be there.

“To be able to to do these projects at the regional level really positions our region in a very strategic way to attract these dollars,” Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes said.

“Pursuing a project like this with a unified voice, you draw much more attention,” Dawson said.

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