Warren County changes path on broadband
Broadband investment has been a focus for county officials since first receiving American Rescue Plan Act funding.
What that might look like is coming into focus.
The county’s first foray into broadband was a solicitation for proposals for a $1 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant that would have expanded service with several volunteer fire stations as hubs.
Two entities applied to work with the county on that project.
“Neither of those applicants could meet the spec requirements of the grant,” Commissioner Tricia Durbin said.
She explained that one failed to meet the required number of households that would gain service while the other proposed owning the assets themselves which the grant wouldn’t permit.
Specific to the $7.6 million in Rescue Plan money the county was initially allocated, Durbin explained that they reached out to third-party providers – westpa.net, Windstream, Breezeline – and asked how those entities could expand their footprint with county funds.
But the federal infrastructure bill has changed the game.
Durbin said there is a “very large swath of funds at the national level” available. “Instead of taking those (Rescue Plan) dollars and using (them) to expand broadband to expand (to a) very small group of people” the county is now considering using those Rescue Plan dollars as a match for bigger, federal grants.
To that end, she said the county will be putting out a request for proposals for broadband consulting service.
The RFP was expected to go out this week or next week “so that we can move forward on a really, really, really good foot print” to expand service, she said. “We are looking for expertise, people who have done this in other counties before.”
She added that Washington and Greene counties have taken similar steps, explaining that the firm would do grant writing and develop project footprints. “There’s not a lot of maps that are super accurate,” she said.
Commissioner Jeff Eggleston said he is hopeful to receive responses by the end of the year.
County officials believe more households can be reached using the county’s funds as a match.
“We want to make sure we are using every dollar wisely,” Durbin said, and not overstepping what other entities are doing.
CONTRACT IN PLACE TO IMPROVE BROADBAND MAPS
Determining exactly where there is and is not broadband internet service will be essentially in making sure any funding invested in expanding access hits the mark.
The state’s Broadband Development Authority has contracted with the Penn State Extension “to develop and update state broadband maps to directly enable the commonwealth to maximize its federal funding allocation for high-speed internet expansion,” according to a statement.
“Contracting with Penn State Extension will bring the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority one step closer to meeting its mission to expand broadband services to unserved and underserved areas of the commonwealth,” Executive Director Brandon Carson said.
In addition to the maps, the Extension will also provide analytics and cost estimates. The project is projected to run through June 2023.
“Determining the correct number of unserved and underserved households in the commonwealth will be critical to determining the state’s portion of the $42.5 billion available under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for broadband deployment projects through a program called Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD),” per the authority.
ACTION ON RIVERFRONT DELAYED
City staff and council members attended the commissioner’s Wednesday meeting but no action on an increased county commitment to the riverfront project.
Durbin highlighted the city’s increased commitment from Monday.
“I am supportive of the county using some of its funding for this,” she said. “I do believe a rising tide does lift all boats,” benefiting both the city and the county.
Action is likely at the next meeting in December.