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Vision 2022 | 'Looking forward': Counties launch study to expand broadband service

[Published in the Tribune-Democrat, Feb. 25th, 2022]

Cambria and Somerset counties are continuing efforts to increase broadband due to needs highlighted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both counties recently agreed to pay $50,000 each in American Rescue Plan dollars for their shares of the costs of a study that will look at the broadband internet needs of the region.

The six-county study is to determine what it would take to build an expansive fiber optic “ring” from Cambria County to Fulton County.

Officials and project leaders speak Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, at Jim Hite Farms near Chest Springs about the completion of a $1.1 million broadband internet expansion project. Pictured left to right, are Art Martynuska, Cambria County Emergency Management Agency coordinator; Katie Kinka, senior planner for the Cambria County Planning Commission; Brian Subich, field representative for U.S. Rep. Glenn “G.T.” Thompson, R-Centre; Cambria County Commissioner B.J. Smith; Cambria County President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky; Nick Weakland, co-owner of In the Stix Broadband; and Cambria County Commissioner Scott Hunt.

“We will expand the broadband to nine underserved areas, affecting hundreds of families,” Cambria County President Commissioner Thomas Chernisky said. “We had people who had no connectivity or limited connectivity and would have to drive miles to find a hot spot so their kids could do homework and now we’ve almost come full circle. We look to see enhancements on that.

“Our Allegheny Broadband Initiative is looking forward. We’re looking at some funding paths to increase funding initiatives further in Cambria County for more underserved areas.”

Bids for the study will be sought by Alleghenies Broadband Inc., a nonprofit formed by Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntington and Somerset counties to pursue efforts to improve broadband service.

Cambria County Emergency Management Coordinator Art Martynuska, who serves on the board of Alleghenies Broadband Inc., said that possibilities of putting fibers along area trails is being discussed.

“We’ve had conversations about using the rails to trails areas as pathways for fibers and we’re looking at the opportunities for funding for those kinds of things,” he said. “It would make a natural path for us to run fiber and would be a win-win.”

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

In August, Cambria added Wifi service at Duman Lake County Park as an extension from In the Stix Broadband after the company placed $1.1 million in infrastructure in the northern part of the county in 2021.

Somerset allotted more than $1.7 million in COVID funding to enable high-speed internet access to be expanded in school districts and communities where the service was shown to be lacking in 2020 and 2021.

Cresson-based In the Stix was awarded $692,000 to add wireless technology to radio towers near Mount Davis, Berlin and Ogletown to expand wireless availability up to 10 miles away from the sites.

And another provider, QCOL Inc., added fiber-optic cable in the Lower Turkeyfoot and Addison Township areas that will enable the company to expand internet offerings to homes and businesses in the years to come.

Somerset President Commissioner Gerald Walker said what the county needs is the dependability of wired internet, which the fibers would help provide.

“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.

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