New Castle News: Commissioners approve broadband study

A high-speed internet expansion study of Lawrence County elicited input from a Shenango Township resident because their household is paying $100 a month for unstable internet service.

Reports of spotty service and connection issues also were reported in Enon Valley Borough, Plain Grove Township, North Beaver Township, and in Volant and Ellwood City boroughs, among other areas, as shown on an accompanying detailed map.

The broadband expansion study, “Link Up Lawrence,” was initiated more than a year ago by the commissioners and county planning office. The study was conducted by the engineering firm of Michael Baker International Inc. and seeks to identify areas of weak high-speed internet access countywide. It also contains recommendations on how to improve connectivity.{p class=”p1”}Broadband is determined by megabits per second and refers to the upload and download speeds. Broadband is internet service that is 25 megabits per second, or 25/3 — high-speed internet that is faster than the traditional dial-up. If a service is less than that, it is not considered broadband. The minimum definition of broadband is 25/3, and deal is 100/20 or greater.

The county commissioners formally approved the study Tuesday, which recommends that internet should be reframed as a public necessity.

Michael Baker’s report identifies four areas, in Plain Grove and Washington townships, as “early action areas” for more immediate focus on remedying some of the problems.

Plain Grove Township Supervisor Jeffrey Bishop, an active member of a task force formed as part of the study, told the commissioners that COVID awakened the residents of his township and eastern Lawrence County to internet communication deficiencies there.

“A number of students who had to work from home did not have communication,” he explained. “The library and I got in touch with each other, and they had units they could loan to kids. After COVID let up, we had a lot of communications with people at Comcast and Armstrong about what was needed out there.

“It isn’t just about running the cable and fiberoptics down the road, it also has to do with power, power poles, telephone poles and right of ways,” Bishop pointed out. “It’s a pretty in-depth project to get that done.”

He added Michael Baker and Amy McKinney, the county planning director, have been asking the right questions and listening to the information given to them.

“Lawrence County has done a fantastic job, getting as far as it has, as quickly as it has,” said Bishop, who has been an elected supervisor for 34 years.

He noted he also is part of a northwest study group “that’s not having near the success that Lawrence County is.”

Courtney Accurti of Michael Baker told the commissioners several nonprofit organizations and key departments in the county were helpful in the study.

“We developed an approach to reach all areas of the county and Jeff Bishop was a significant part of that,” she said. The company also conducted industry interviews with internet service providers.

The study outlines all that has been done and links around what you can do in the future, identifies a number of priorities for the county and pinpoints connectivity opportunity areas,” Accurti said. “There are spots where we know access is needed in the county.

“The expansion project is a snapshot of work that’s been done and what can be done in the future,” she said.

With federal funding being made available, there will be immense opportunities in the next couple years to help those expansion projects become a reality, she said, adding that “It won’t happen overnight.”

Commissioner Dan Vogler suggested the county send copies of the document to state legislators.

“We’ve been told we have to have a plan in place, and we have to work with areas and service providers. We need to be ready, because it’s going to go,” he said.

Joe Bzorek of Michael Baker added that “through these processes, your vision is a missing piece of the puzzle. These programs bridge those gaps and open lines of communications to express needs and partner with internet providers. It is a big help.”

Lawrence County hired Michael Baker more than a year ago to conduct an in-depth look at the high-speed internet connectivity here. The company, in partnership with the county planning staff, initiated countywide survey of residents to determine how effective their residential and business internet connections are.

A key part of the study was that public survey, along with speed tests.

Lawrence County’s broadband study task force members, in addition to Bishop, are: Andy Waple, Southwest Pennsylvania Commission; Andrew Henley, director of New Castle Public Library; Lisa Bekoski, Challenges Options on Aging; David Richards, director, New Area Castle Transit Authority; Erin Smith, Westminster College; Jennifer Elliott, Lawrence County Community Action Partnership; Chad Strobel, county public safety director; Drita Crawford, New Beaver Borough secretary/treasurer; Chris Frye, city administrator of New Castle; Paul Bucciarelli, Forward Lawrence; Jesse Putnam, Lawrence County Veterans Affairs director; Jess Carroll, Northwest Pennsylvania Commission; Tom McKinley, New Wilmington Area Chamber of Commerce; Albert Burick III, Shenango Township supervisor; Gayle Young, United Way director; and Kevin Swogger, Ellwood City Borough manager.

The cost of the county’s study, between $244,000 and $287,000, was funded by the county’s American Rescue Plan Act funding does not involve local tax dollars.

The study pinpoints areas of the county that are weakest for internet services or where internet availability is nonexistent.

The study could enable the county to pursue, and qualify for, federal dollars to boost high-speed internet service countywide.

The Southwest Pennsylvania Commission in 2019 identified broadband connectivity as a high priority for southwestern Pennsylvania’s long-range plan. It worked with a coalition of stakeholders to develop a regional connectivity roadmap — — to identify and guide the deployment of high-speed connectivity programs and projects regionally.

On a wider basis, the state in December of 2021 created a Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority that is seeking input from Pennsylvanians statewide about the accessibility of broadband — high-speed internet access — in their areas. The authority is charged with creating a statewide broadband plan and distributing federal and state monies for broadband expansion projects in unserved and underserved areas of the commonwealth, including in Lawrence County.

The state Department of Community and Economic Development last year approved the grant guidelines for the Pennsylvania Broadband Infrastructure Program, which will provide $200 million statewide to businesses, nonprofits, local government, and economic development organizations to enhance broadband connectivity statewide. The money is part of a U.S. Department of the Treasury allocation of $10 billion to states nationwide through the Capital Projects Fund program.

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