Pennsylvania's Rural Broadband Cooperative, which we first wrote about in July, has received a $514,000 grant from the Huntingdon County Commissioners to set up a new tower and expand their user base in Jackson Township and support repeater antennas in the area, bringing service to additional households in rural areas.
A pair of broadband bills in Pennsylvania (one of which has been signed into law by the governor, and the other having passed one chamber) represent a collective step forward for broadband by updating regulations and establishing a broadband grant program so as to promote network expansion in rural and unserved parts of the state of Pennsylvania.
Fewer Restrictions, More Money
The first is House Bill 2438 [pdf], which allows electric cooperatives to use existing easements for an affiliate to deliver broadband service without re-negotiating with property owners. The bill also allows cable companies to use cooperative-owned poles with permission and in accordance with existing rates and regulations. It’s designed to make it faster, cheaper, and easier to bring Internet access to rural parts of the state.
Johnstown Area Regional Industries entrepreneurial coach Blake Fleegle said of the legislation:
Every county in our region is looking at bringing high-dollar earners to our region. Employers are finding people can be just as effective working in Johnstown as they would be in Washington, D.C., or Pittsburgh. But they need to connect, and that's where broadband comes into play.
Chad Carrick, President and CEO of REA Energy Cooperative, likewise welcomed the legislation while emphasizing the role electric co-ops will play in the state:
It may be hard for some to believe, but there is a good 40% of Indiana and Cambria counties that either don't have broadband Internet access or it's not up to snuff, according to our surveys to our membership.
2438 passed the state House in June, the Senate at the end of October, and was signed into law by the governor at the end of last month.
The second is Senate Bill 835 [pdf], titled the “Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Pilot...Read more
When Craig Eccher, CEO Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, joined Christopher on the podcast last fall, he had an exciting project to talk about: the electric cooperative, after strong calls from its membership asking their utility to deliver broadband, stepped up and committed to an $80 million, 3,250-mile fiber build across the rugged terrain of rural Pennsylvania, the first leg propelled by $52.6 million in federal and state grants. Tri-Co Connections, the subsidiary building the network and serving as provider, has begun connecting residents in an aggressive plan to serve 10,000 users in the next three years. The move makes Tri-County the first electric co-op in Pennsylvania to enter the fiber space, and it's doing so in dramatic fashion.
More Humble Beginnings
The project started as a smart meter initiative as the electric co-op realized that reliability and other cost savings gains could be made if it ran fiber to its substations and other infrastructure, but at an annual meeting five years ago members overwhelmingly said they wanted more. In fact, when surveyed, 80% said they wanted their electric utility to deliver broadband. But the co-op faced some significant obstacles, primarily in the form of low population density — its service territory in north-central Pennsylvania has an average of just six homes per mile. Financially, the plan wouldn’t have worked without a successful bid for a number of grants. They include a $17 million PennDOT grant, a $1.5 million state grant from the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Project program, a $33 million Connect America Fund II (CAFII) grant, and a $2.5 million Appalachian Regional Commission grant. All told, they add up to two-thirds of the anticipated costs of the project. The rest will be paid for by ongoing subscription fees as residents, farms, and businesses are brought online. Sheri Collins, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania’s Office of Broadband...Read more
Tucked away in Kishacoquillas Valley (also known as Big Valley) between Stone and Jacks Mountains lies a 120-foot repurposed HAM radio tower, now the base of operations for the Rural Broadband Cooperative (RBC), a group bringing fixed wireless to a rural Pennsylvania community. RBC remains one of the many groups around the country making use of community ties to address connectivity issues in places where monopoly Internet service providers have for decades refused to invest.
RBC’s effort began in 2017. When asked about bringing high-speed broadband to the area, Comcast replied that it would need $80,000 to lay a line half a dozen miles long, according to one founding member of RBC. So the group — among them a retired professor, a former telecommunications manager, and a musician — formed the non-profit cooperative and moved forward with a different plan.
They leased a patch of land 1,900 feet up on the side of Stone Mountain with a view over the crest and a repurposed former HAM radio tower to bring low-latency fixed wireless Internet to the area. In total, the effort cost $60,000, with the money raised by the cooperative’s initial members. The tower itself is run by solar and wind, with a battery backup. The group’s backhaul connection comes from a 100 gigabit fiber line from Keystone Initiative for Network-Based Education and Research.
Most of those living within a 15-mile radius of the tower can receive service, with those lacking direct line-of-sight still eligible so long as they can establish a connection to neighbors with two or fewer degrees of separation.
Currently, RBC offers two tiers of service: a basic connection clocking in at 5 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload for $40/mo, or a 25/3 Mbps connection for $75/mo. New customers also pay a one-time $300 setup fee. It’s a far cry from the $100/mo for 3 Mbps connection some area residents are stuck with.
Broadband Access in Rural PA
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), approximately 600,000 Pennsylvanians don’t have...Read more
As state lawmakers debate in committee rooms and Capitol chambers around the country, various broadband and Internet network infrastructure bills are appearing on agendas. Some are good news for local communities interested in developing publicly owned networks while other preemption bills make projects more difficult to plan, fund, and execute. We've gathered together some notable bills from several states that merit watching - good, bad, and possibly both.
For years, local communities were not allowed to bond to develop publicly owned broadband infrastructure in New Hampshire. Last year, the state adopted SB 170, which opened the door a crack so that municipalities can bond to develop infrastructure for public-private partnerships (PPPs) in "unserved" areas. This year, the New Hampshire General Court has the opportunity to push open the door a bit wider with SB 459.
SB 459 allows local communities to potentially define "unserved" areas themselves by putting more responsibility on Internet access providers. Municipalities must currently engage in a request for information process in which they must reach out to all Internet service providers operating in the community. SB 459, if adopted, would allow a community to consider areas "unserved" if a provider does not respond to such a request to clarify which premises are unserved. With the "unserved" designation, municipalities can bond to develop infrastructure to serve those premises.
In Pennsylvania, where lawmakers meet all year, Rep. Pam Snyder introduced HB 2055 in late in 2019. The bill allows local governments to provide telecommunications services, but limits them to unserved areas. If passed, the bill amends the Municipalities Authorities Act and,...Read more
Local officials in eight mostly-rural counties in southwest Pennsylvania are combining efforts to determine first, what connectivity is available and, second, what can be done to improve it.
Seeking Updated Information
Westmoreland, Fayette, Cambria, Somerset, Blair, Bedford, Huntingdon, and Fulton counties have been working with consulting firm Design Nine to develop a survey to share with residents in the region. The Regional Broadband Task Force, established by the Southern Alleghenies Planning & Development Commission (SAP&DC), gathered limited data in the past. They estimate that six percent of folks in the region live in places without wired broadband Internet access.
An earlier study determined that:
...2.3 percentage of the 354,751 residents fall below that level of service [25 Mbps upload and 3 Mbps download]. About 1.6 percentage of Blair County’s 123,842 population and 2.2 percentage of Cambria County’s 134,550 population are lacking that basic level of connectivity. At the other end of the spectrum, 55.2 percentage of Fulton County’s 14,506 residents are without the service.
Funding for the study comes from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). The Task Force received $50,000 from ARC and the member counties contributed a matching $50,000 for the study. They began looking for a firm to help develop the study last fall and chose Design Nine hoping to determine:
- Level of service being provided; the needs of local businesses and the reliability of the current services being provided;
- An inventory of broadband assets already in place;
- An assessment community broadband requirements for bandwidth needs;
- Determine best technologies to meet the coal impacted community needs; and
- Cost estimates for different deployment strategies
Businesses Want More in Westmoreland
While the Regional Broadband Task Force is seeking data about connections consistent with the FCC's definition of "...Read more
An op-ed written by Katie Kienbaum, Research Associate at ILSR, was published in The Intelligencer. Katie addresses the inadequacy of satellite Internet access and why federal funding should go to real broadband solutions. Find the full piece below:
The digital divide is about to get much larger in rural Pennsylvania, and the federal government is bankrolling it.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission, FCC, held a reverse auction that distributed approximately $1.5 billion to Internet access providers to connect underserved rural communities across the country. While this was an important step toward improving Internet access in many communities, in others it was a perverse step backwards — especially in Pennsylvania.
Rural communities desperately need better broadband to survive in the digital future. But instead of investing in high-quality networks that will allow rural families, farms and businesses to thrive, the FCC is burning millions on slow, unreliable satellite connectivity in Pennsylvania and 19 other states.
Nationally, the FCC awarded satellite company Viasat more than $120 million — including about $20 million for Pennsylvania — to provide internet access that most wouldn’t even consider broadband. Compared to other technologies, satellite has slower speeds, higher latency, much lower data caps and less reliability, all at higher prices. This low-quality connectivity makes it difficult to complete everyday tasks, like finding employment, accessing health care and finishing schoolwork.
It’s also all but impossible to run a business on satellite Internet access. As a result, most people resort to satellite internet access only when there are no other options available. Because of the technical limitations of satellite, it’s questionable whether Viasat will even be able to meet the modest quality standards established by the FCC.
It wasn’t inevitable that these communities got stuck with subsidized satellite. In the same auction, the FCC awarded $225 million to electric cooperatives, which will leverage the federal funding to deploy mostly gigabit-speed fiber, the fastest and most reliable broadband technology, in similarly rural areas.
In north central Pennsylvania, Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative will receive around $32...
Maps produced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) show that the vast majority of Pennsylvanians have broadband access, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. In order to get a clearer picture of on-the-ground broadband access and availability, a team from Pennsylvania State University proposed a research project for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania (CRPA) that would analyze millions of speed tests from around the state. A few staff members from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance were recruited to help with the research: Hannah Trostle and Hannah Bonestroo created the maps for the report and Christopher Mitchell contributed policy recommendations.
A Growing Problem in Rural Counties
The team collected more than 11 million speed tests in 2018 using the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) platform, which allows users to conduct tests on their actual broadband connections. When the M-Lab’s data was compared to the FCC’s Form 477 speed data, certain discrepancies became apparent. Researchers found that there are actually zero counties in Pennsylvania where at least 50% of residents have access to broadband.
The findings also showed that not only are median speeds slower in rural counties compared to urban ones, but the discrepancy between FCC data and the measured speeds collected by M-Lab has grown significantly in rural counties over the last few years. This signifies a growing problem for policymakers hoping to bridge rural Pennsylvania’s digital divide. Without a clear and accurate analysis of connectivity, determining where and how funding should be used is difficult.
Next Steps for Pennsylvania
Rural communities can face serious economic impacts due to a lack of affordable, reliable, broadband access, so local leaders are motivated to improve access for residents and businesses. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is one of a number of states with laws on the books that restrict municipal broadband, so governments that are willing to invest in broadband infrastructure are often discouraged or flat out prevented from doing so. Some have nonetheless come up with creative solutions to improve local connectivity, but...Read more
The Next Century Cities’ Regional Broadband Summit is quickly approaching. Summer tends to slip by without notice, but we don’t want this summer opportunity to also slip by. You can still register for the July 23 - 24 event in Pittsburgh, “Making Connections,” and touch base with elected officials from cities, towns, and counties from across the U.S. Municipal, nonprofit, and academic staff can register for free.
On Monday, Next Centuries Cities will bring together experts in policy, broadband champions, and community leaders from all levels of government to tackle issues surrounding broadband deployment. Some of the topics they will discuss include digital equity, financing, rural connectivity, 5G, and they’ll offer success stories.
In addition to Christopher, you can expect to see presentations by:
- Jonathan Chambers of Connexon and formerly of the FCC
- Jim Baller from the premier law firm Baller, Stokes & Lide
- Melanie McCoyfrom Sebewaing, Michigan
- Tom Coverick from KeyBanc Capital Markets
On Monday evening, attendees are invited to a welcome reception in Pittsburgh City Hall where vendors and public officials can connect in a casual setting.
Tuesday’s Speed Networking
On Tuesday, the event will focus on the Second Annual City-Vendor Connect, a “speed networking” event in which participants can speak to each other individually:... Read more
Is it summer already? If you aren’t already booked for July, Pittsburgh awaits. Next Century Cities is hosting Making Connections: A Regional Broadband Summit that will bring together experts, leaders, and champions from federal, state, and local government. Register here to sign up for the two-day event.
In addition to our Christopher Mitchell, you will hear speakers such as:
- Jonathan Chambers of Connexon and formerly of the FCC
- Joanne Hovis from CTC Technology & Energy
- Ernie Staten from Fairlawn, Ohio
- Tom Coverick from KeyBanc Capital Markets
Blair Levin, Senior Fellow from the Brookings Institution and one of people who have helped establish a vision for universal broadband in the U.S., will deliver the Keynote Address.
On July 23rd, listen to several panel presentations on successful models for deployment, digital equity, and financing. You’ll also have the chance to network with colleagues and participate in breakout sessions. There will be a Welcome Reception that evening at City Hall.
Tuesday, July 24th, will be dedicated to networking to bring communities and vendors together:
City-Vendor Connect will be set up in a “speed networking” format, to provide cities and vendors the opportunity to speak one-on-one to build relationships, discuss assets and needs, and create potential partnerships. The pairings of cities and vendors will be curated based on mutual interest, needs, and priorities between cities and vendors. Possible discussion topics range from fiber builds to 5G deployments to smart city analytics platforms. Cities and vendors will have the...