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Report takes state-wide view of broadband challenges

It’s no secret that there are areas of Warren County underserved from a broadband perspective.

A Joint State Government Commission report has examined precisely where those areas are and also made a host of recommendations to the General Assembly about what should be done in response.

Up front, the report concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic brought this issue into focus for many.

“Broadband’s vital role was starkly evident from the outset of the Covid-19 outbreak when the need for mitigation actions both statewide and nationally revealed how vital Internet communications are as millions attempted to continue to work, study, and access health care from home under governmental ‘stay at home’ orders,” the report concluded.

Entire sections of the report are dedicated to some of those challenges, including focusing on challenges related to distance learning.

But if we know there’s a problem — and, realistically, it’s a big, expensive problem — what should we be doing about it?

“Pennsylvania should establish an independent governmental entity in the form of a broadband authority to oversee and support broadband deployment statewide,” the report concluded.

That entity would, pursuant to an additional recommendation, oversee funds from a permanent state line item aimed “to fund broadband deployment and improvement.”

But the state won’t be the only solution here.

“The Advisory Committee is in agreement that competitive market conditions for deployment do not reach all areas of need,” the report states. “Consequently, providers should be given incentives to meet service objectives in areas of marketplace failure, but such incentives must be tied to verifiable standards and objective accountability.”

Other areas may not even be economically viable for providers to justify the expense.

“In those areas where ‘last mile’ connectivity is not a viable option for commercial entities, authority could be granted to community-based networks, municipalities, and existing infrastructure entities, such as rural electric cooperatives, to complete deployment,” the report concludes. “Any community-based organization, municipality, rural electric cooperative, commercial entity, or fixed wireless provider, should be eligible for state-supported loans and grants administered by the independent authority proposed….”

The report emphasizes that “anchor institutions such as schools, postsecondary institutions, libraries, municipal officers, community facilities, etc.” should have a minimum high-speed level.

Further, “broadband deployment efforts should include considerations of affordability to consumers” and “rfforts should continue to identify unserved and underserved areas, and priority of efforts to expand broadband deployment should focus on these areas first….”

County-wide, a 2018 estimate included in the report identifies that 94.1 percent of Warren County residents in “urban” settings have access to fixed broadband access compared to just 54.6 of county residents identified as “rural.”

Four communities in the county — Chandlers Valley, Bear Lake, Garland and Spring Creek — were identified as having no fixed broadband that meet speed definitions from the FCC.

The report also identified several other categories aimed at identifying the strength and weakness areas of internet service in the county.

Nearly 90 percent of city residents have access from multiple broadband providers. That percentage drops to 76.1 percent in Sheffield and Sugar Grove and 71.2 percent in Russell.

Irvine and Grand Valley have multiple providers as well but those entities serve just 32.2 and 14.9 percent of the geographic area, respectively.

Tiona and Columbus are identified as having just one provider with 100 and 50.8 percent coverage, respectively.

The report — citing a Times Observer article — outlined efforts underway at the county level via the Broadband Task Force and possible development of broadband expansion in conjunction with Youngsville Television.

The unique model of the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, headquartered in Warren, was also highlighted.

“The college does not operate as a traditional campus-based college, nor is it a classic online college,” the report states. “Community locations are utilized to deliver class instruction at multiple sites across the region and are brought together via live interactive video technology.”

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