Westmoreland and other counties identify internet access as critical need, plan service expansion

[Originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Feb. 28, 2021]


Eight counties in central and southwest Pennsylvania are banding together to better connect rural parts of the region to the internet.


The Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission is leading the effort, representing Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fayette, Fulton, Huntingdon, Somerset and Westmoreland counties.


The commission is doing an internet-needs survey in the eight counties, with plans to create a nonprofit agency that will use a hybrid of wireless and fiber optic cable to stretch the internet to more homes and businesses.


A final report is due in June.


“We’re excited to move forward,” said Brandon Carson, director, planning and community development at the Altoona-based Southern Alleghenies Commission. “A regional broadband cooperative: we’re at the point where we really need to step up and look at a solution like that.”


A comprehensive regional plan two years ago identified broadband access as a critical issue in six of the eight counties. Since then, Fayette and Westmoreland counties joined the initiative to expand access.


The commission estimates that more than 10% of the region’s population has inadequate access to the internet. That would mean more than 100,000 people have either slow or no connectivity at all.


“For me, the digital divide has always been rural versus urban. People say that people in rural areas don’t need broadband as much as they do in urban areas. That’s not true. We’re talking about real quality of life issues that affect rural people deeply.”

The study area includes Shawnee and Blue Knob state parks in Bedford County, which have a combined 10,111 acres of lakes, camping, ski trails and other recreational amenities that draw more than half a million visitors annually, state officials said. A wireless internet connection is not available outside Blue Knob’s lodging area and virtually nowhere in Shawnee, which has a 451-acre lake.


In the fall, the Southern Alleghenies Commission received a matching grant of $50,000 from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the study.


One option that’s being explored is the creation of a nonprofit, like the Rural Broadband Cooperative in Huntingdon County, which uses a Stone Mountain communication tower to transmit internet access signals to rural homeowners and businesses.


The all-volunteer Rural Broadband Cooperative went live in late December, serving 20 homes and businesses, including a dairy farm and auto body shop, said Henry McCreary, a member of the cooperative. A second tower is planned for summer, which could increase the capacity needed to serve up to 200 customers.


Rural Broadband Cooperative offers two plans depending on speed: $40 and $75; both are at least twice as fast as what’s available in the region, Mr. McCreary said.

Blacksburg, Va.-based Design Nine Inc. is conducting the survey for the Southern Alleghenies Commission.


In addition to hobbling commerce, education and health care, the lack of speedy internet access in many rural areas depresses real estate values, Design Nine president Andrew Cohill said. Prospective homebuyers are much less likely to move to an area without good internet connections.


To expand access, about 400 communities nationwide have created some kind of broadband infrastructure such as communication towers — mostly through public/private partnerships, Mr. Cohill said.


“For me, the digital divide has always been rural versus urban,” he said. “People say that people in rural areas don’t need broadband as much as they do in urban areas. That’s not true.


“We’re talking about real quality of life issues that affect rural people deeply.”

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