A Plan for Middle and Last-Mile Comes Together in York County

For the past two years, York County, Pennsylvania (est. pop. 459,000) has been working hard on a multi-part plan to connect both rural and urban areas.  

York began laying out plans for a county-owned middle-mile network in 2020. The idea was to make last-mile hookups viable for private providers in more areas of the county, and to close its major connectivity gaps.

Along with these plans, York launched a middle-mile pilot project along a 16-mile stretch of the York Heritage Rail Trail, which runs from the York metropolitan area in the center of the county down to Pennsylvania’s southern border. The project leveraged $1.5 million in CARES Act funding and a length of conduit that had been lying underneath the rail trail for two decades. The fiber that was deployed currently provides middle-mile capacity throughout the south central part of the county, as well as some wireless coverage from a tower at the stretch’s midpoint in Hanover Junction.

Building Beyond the Pilot

In early 2021, it was left to the YoCo Fiber Broadband Task Force, “led by the York County Economic Alliance and composed of representatives from business, government, health care, education, and other sectors,” to recommend to the county a way to “develop and implement a countywide broadband strategy.”

In July of that year, the Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to spend as much as $25 million of its American Rescue Plan money, under the guidance of the task force. The first $20 million was dedicated to building out the first half of an underground middle-mile network throughout southern York County, which was designed to “connect anchor institutions and build redundancy.”

The design lays out seven fiber rings and includes the stretch already laid along the rail trail. The last $5 million will support the construction of wireless infrastructure to bring connectivity to York and Hanover, as high-speed Internet access in these urban areas is far from ubiquitous.

York has since engaged Business Information Group (BIG) to support the project and taken strides towards getting residents connected. The network BIG designed, which was finished this past March, will offer a free Internet connection to residents in York and Hanover. 

Collaborating to Provide Higher Speeds

To affirm and inform its broadband efforts, York conducted a survey in 2021 to assess the county’s existing broadband infrastructure, as well as its needs. The survey found that almost a third of county residents do not have high-speed Internet access, that nearly half are “dissatisfied with the speed or reliability of their current service,” and that nearly 90 percent would purchase higher quality broadband access if it was available to them.

The survey also found that almost one third of residents have a connection slower than 25/3 Mbps, and nearly two thirds have a connection slower than 100 Mbps down. In some areas within the county, only about a quarter of households have Internet access

In December of 2021, the county began soliciting private Internet service providers interested in building out last-mile infrastructure to extend the existing middle-mile network to Seven Valleys, Glen Rock, Railroad, and New Freedom. As of this past April, five providers had submitted bids to carry out the last-mile Fiber-to-the-Home connections. This last-mile infrastructure will be privately owned. The county also solicited providers to build out the first half of the larger middle-mile project, and had received six bids for this work by April.  

Last month, York County approved a plan to move forward with Lit Communities for both middle and last mile projects outlined in the county’s broadband plan. Regarding the last-mile infrastructure, the public-private partnership with Lit Communities lays out an arrangement in which both entities will share the network’s revenue “to help advance future YoCo Fiber initiatives.” Under the partnership, “Lit Communities will [also] provide design and engineering services [for the middle-mile network] and assist the County in publicly bidding the construction portion of the project.” Both middle and last-mile construction is expected to begin within the next month.