Nonprofit Directing Efforts to Improve Internet Access for Six Counties in Southern Pennsylvania

Nonprofit Alleghenies Broadband is leading a cohesive effort across a six-county region in south-central Pennsylvania to bring high-speed Internet access to areas that are unserved or underserved by reliable networks.

Part of its work is a recently completed Request for Proposals (RFP) in search of forming a series of public-private partnerships to help identify target areas and offer robust solutions to bring new infrastructure to the businesses and residents who need it most. As that process continues to unfold, however, the nonprofit is already working with city and county leaders to pursue a range of wireline and fixed wireless options that will result in better service and publicly owned infrastructure. 

A Regional Approach

Formed in October 2020, Alleghenies Broadband is part of the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission. By coordinating efforts in six counties (Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fulton, Huntingdon, and Somerset, collectively representing about 500,000 residents), it hopes to address the broadband gaps scattered across the region. Somerset, Fulton, and Huntingdon seem to be in the worst shape at present: while many residents have access to cable service, large swaths of the counties are stuck with DSL or satellite service only, leading to median download speeds of just 3.7-8 Megabits per second (Mbps) (see Fulton and Huntingdon coverage maps below, with satellite-only areas in grey). The remaining three counties also have significant gaps where no wireline access is available, representing thousands of households with poor or no service.

The recently closed RFP from Alleghenies Broadband offers collaboration with the “six boards of county commissioners in the Region, [as well as] municipalities, school districts, Internet service providers, and other stakeholders to expand access.” It identifies an array of state, regional, and federal funding programs the nonprofit and its public and private partners could tap into to maximize its impact, and proposes to “act as a conduit for the various funds that are and will be available to ensure that investments in broadband today are leveraged to the maximum for future initiatives and projects,” offering “ongoing support and services . . . Including grant monitoring and assistance with marketing and outreach.” 

The RFP takes aim in particular at areas covered by DSL coverage, eliciting project proposals that target areas unserved by “a wireline connection that reliably delivers at least 25 Mbps down speed and 3 Mbps upload speed.” Alleghenies Broadband sets the bar for future projects at 100/100 Mbps, though it says it will accept speeds of 100/20 Mbps in areas if particular challenges can be documented.

Ongoing Work

In the meantime, the nonprofit has continued to pursue solutions across the six counties over the course of the spring and summer. Blair County Commissioners heard from and “spoke favorably of” spending money on a plan presented by representatives of the nonprofit in early June according to the Altoona Mirror, and is considering spending a chunk of its $23.6 million in Rescue Plan funds on some sort of effort. At the end of the month, Alleghenies Broadband asked the city of Altoona (located in Blair County, pop. 44,000) to set aside $5.8 million of its Rescue Plan funds for the effort.

Around the same time, Huntington County Commissioners also approved participation in a grant effort to secure some of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s $288 million broadband infrastructure program. Those funds would be awarded to partnerships between public and private entities to expand access. The current plan calls for building 12 fixed wireless towers which would be owned by Alleghenies Broadband and operated and maintained by local wireless ISP Upwards Broadband to extend service for a total of $4.2 million, of which the county’s portion would be 10 percent. Beyond that, a potential partnership with neighboring Fulton County could leverage cost-sharing and lead to further expansion if all goes well. 

Similarly, Alleghenies Broadband has partnered with Bedford County to launch an initiative called “Speed Zone” to identify and act on fixed wireless and fiber projects to get 25/3 Mbps service to 95 percent of the county by 2023. So far, that effort seems to have mostly involved adding fixed wireless towers in targeted areas with ISPs like Crowsnest Broadband.

Huntingdon and Bedford Counties have already been working since 2020 using CARES Act dollars to add fixed wireless infrastructure around the region.

The Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission (SAPDC) cites as its mission “promoting economic and community development, fostering cooperation among communities and the agencies that serve them, and working to make the Alleghenies a better place in which to live, work, and do business.” Its Recovery and Resiliency Plan [pdf], released back in February of 2021 as a guide to reinvigorate the region and recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, features broadband prominently. It identifies Internet access as first on the list of priorities to attract young people and new businesses, and names telecommunications infrastructure as a core goal to address. 

Broadband coverage maps from a joint project between ILSR and the Center for Rural Pennsylvania