The notion that many people living in rural areas of Western Pennsylvania have poor access to high-speed broadband internet service isn’t a surprise to local leaders. What is more important to them right now is finding a comprehensive solution to fix the problem.
The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission released a report Tuesday showing that rural communities in Fayette, Greene and Washington counties are among the most underserved areas in the 10-county region, and the study outlined an action plan to extend broadband in the future.
Announced as the Connectivity Roadmap, the initiative offers a multi-prong plan on how to improve broadband services in ways that wouldn’t soon become obsolete as new technology is developed. The “roadmap” was created through more than 3,400 surveys of people across the 10-county region, along with community forums with the public and phone interviews with various leaders.
Locally, the Washington County Authority has conducted nearly 1,100 surveys in the county on its own since March 10 to look at areas that are lacking high-speed internet service. That broadband internet survey is still available for Washington County residents to take by visiting the county’s official website at www.co.washington.pa.us.
Authority Director John Timney said they have been working “hand in glove” with SPC and the other entities involved to have the most comprehensive look of the situation and how to make improvements. But he added that the SPC study bore down deep into many other technological issues such as digital literacy for seniors and internet access to minorities and people with disabilities.
“They’re doing a little more than we are. We have a machete and we’re going through the jungle. They have a scalpel and they’re going through surgery,” Timney said of the two sets of surveys. “We’re like a light switch. Do they have (broadband) or not? The information they have we’re leveraging.”
Washington County has earmarked $30 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act stimulus money to partner with internet providers to expand service. But when that money runs out, many counties will be vying for additional federal infrastructure funding that will be disbursed by the recently formed Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority.
“Everyone is doing everything for the right reasons,” Timney said. “Inclusive to that, the more we’re organized as a consortium as counties … you can get down to funding and we can hold each other accountable.”
State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, is one of the members of the PBDA board that will administer the state and federal funds for broadband projects in unserved and underserved areas.
“The Connectivity Roadmap is a wonderful example of what we have been striving for, not only from a regional level but from a statewide perspective,” Snyder said in a written statement. “Initiatives like this are exactly what the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority aims to highlight and encourage as collaboration, and partnership between government, public and private parties is essential to advancing connectivity in our communities.”
Fayette County Commissioner Vince Vicites, who also serves as secretary and treasurer for the SPC board, called the plan a “regional blueprint” on how to improve services and mobilize counties to receive state and federal funding for broadband expansion projects.
“They did a pretty comprehensive look at every county,” Vicites said. “This segues with counties performing their own studies to hone in our own broadband needs.”
The roadmap will allow counties like Fayette to build on the projects they’ve already completed in recent years. Vicites pointed to $5.3 million spent on its VITALink initiative to install 29 internet “hot spots” across the county using federal CARES Act stimulus money in late 2020. Vicites called that project the “middle mile” of broadband expansion that will help them to go farther into underserved areas after the county recently received a $1.1 million grant from the state earlier this year.
“Doing a plan on a regional basis and individually in Fayette County will position us for funding opportunities in the future,” Vicites said. “We want to be aggressive. Our goal is for 100% of the county to be broadband, but we have to take it step-by-step.”
The SPC study was funded by the Hillman Foundation and brought together various entities such as Allies for Children and Carnegie Mellon University’s Metro21: Smart Cities Institute. Pittsburgh-based engineering firm Michael Baker International Inc. conducted the survey analysis.