Warren Co. Pennsylvania Seeks Partner to Bring Broadband to Rural Residents

In late August, Warren County Commissioners in northwest Pennsylvania issued a RFP that sought to establish a public-private partnership to bring high-speed Internet connectivity to rural parts of the county near the Allegheny National Forest and River.

County officials are now reviewing proposals for a plan to “design, engineer, procure, install, operate, manage, and maintain high speed Internet to connect and serve the underserved rural areas of the county.” The initiative is part of the county Broadband Task Force’s effort to close the digital divide in a region that is nearly 900 square miles and home to 40,000 residents.

The RFP calls for three required outcomes

  • High-speed Internet access for the fire departments in Garland, Wrightsville, Sugar Grove, Spring Creek, and Spartansburg.
  • Wireless or wireline connectivity to businesses and residential households in Garland, Wrightsville, Sugar Grove, Spring Creek, and Spartansburg communities.
  • Offer “no cost service” to municipal entities in the county.

And while the RFP does not specifically require wireless network proposals, the RFP puts its thumb on the scale in favor of proposals that detail a “Primary Wireless Solution.”

The county would own the infrastructure for three years and, during that time, the Internet service provider who wins the bid will pay a rights-of-way agreement for the network, and will be responsible for the management and maintenance of the network. The county is also willing to provide access to its vertical assets to enable the deployment of wireless technology. 

The RFP does not specify required subscription costs or low cost options for subscribers but does ask applicants to provide a five-year customer rate table and specifies that they are looking for a project that is beneficial to all parties, including the residents.

Warren County Broadband Task Force Takes Charge

The Warren County Broadband Task Force is an off-shoot of the Warren County Marketing Taskforce, first established in 2018. The task force identified how vital universal access to broadband was to boosting tourism, encouraging economic development, and workforce recruitment. In 2020, just as the COVID pandemic began to unfold, County Commissioners made broadband expansion a top priority, spawning the formation of the Warren County Broadband Task Force.

It's a focus buttressed by a Center for Rural Pennsylvania study that found Internet connectivity in rural counties was substantially slower than other parts of the state and was hurting the local economy. And, although parts of the county is served by T-Mobile Home Internet, cable provider Breezeline, and Verizon DSL, County Commissioners heard from residents that broadband service in the region was far from ubiquitous, underscored by the Commission learning that the only upgrades Verizon may consider was to replace existing copper landlines.

Despite concerns from detractors leery of using federal funds to address gaps in broadband access, the task force forged ahead, in part by working with community partners.

One community partner the task force has been working with is Youngsville TV, a local nonprofit cable and Internet service provider that is looking to expand its network in the region.

Last year, Youngsville TV was able to secure a grant for $110,000 from the county. The local cable provider also received a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development Community Connects Grant for $637,500 to bring fiber service to 240 homes and businesses in the Cherry Grove Community as well as a $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to bring broadband service to parts of Warren County.

Beyond that, Youngsville TV has also applied for a $30 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program. 

With an eye to further expansion and partnership with the county, Youngsville TV submitted a proposal in response to the county’s RFP. And, though county officials have not yet selected the winning bid, Youngsville TV is well-positioned to meet the county’s requirements. The ARC grant Youngsville TV was awarded, for example, is focused on partnerships with local Volunteer Fire Departments as anchor institutions just as the RFP envisions.

Inline image of home in Youngsville, PA courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)