New Castle News: Lawrence County takes next step towards federal broadband funding

In a continuation of last year’s “Link Up Lawrence” broadband study, Lawrence County is spending $8,400 for a regional funding application with Pennsylvania’s Northwestern Commission.

Federal American Rescue Plan Act funds totaling $244,750 were also previously spent by the county to continue the partnership with Michael Baker International, the engineering firm responsible for “Link Up Lawrence.”

The study was started following the rollout of the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program (BEAD) worth $42 billion, part of President Joe Biden’s “Internet for All” initiative.

The study was needed to help secure a slice of Pennsylvania’s $1.2 billion in federal funding for broadband improvements.

Plain Grove Township, an early action area designated by the study, is the first area earmarked by the county to receive infrastructure improvements for its broadband signal.

The engineering firm responsible for the study, Michael Baker International, found 47 percent of Lawrence County’s population is either underserved or unserved in internet connection

According to the FCC, underserved access is defined by download speeds of under 100 Mbps and upload speeds of 20 Mbps. Unserved access is defined as no access at all, download speeds under 25 Mbps and upload speeds under 3 Mbps.

“We are just in the beginning of this process and securing funding is the next step,” said Amy McKinney, director and fair housing officer of the Lawrence County Department of Planning and Community Development. “We can’t move forward until the funds are in place.”

Gov. Josh Shapiro laid out plans for the $1.16 billion of BEAD funding at the state level to disburse throughout Pennsylvania in October 2023. The funding will be distributed over a five-year plan, with statewide surveys and applications taking place.

According to Pennsylvania’s Broadband Development Authority, applications will be evaluated based on “the size and scope of the unserved or underserved Pennsylvania community…the experience and ability of the applicant to successfully deploy high-speed broadband service, affordability standards that include a low-cost option, criteria to support Pennsylvania’s workforce, a plan to ensure high adoption rates in proposed areas upon the project’s completion, and more.”

Lawrence County was previously passed up by the Shapiro Administration’s distribution of $200 million in Broadband Infrastructure Program Awards, a segment of ARPA funds.

Lawrence County, part of both the Northwest Regional Commission and Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, is also partnering with the SPC.

According to McKinney, partnerships with both commissions will increase the chances of receiving funding from the state.

“The main factor is going to be how strong of an application the two commissions can put together,” she said, noting the “highly competitive” nature of the infrastructure funding. McKinney also said no amount of funding is guaranteed.

“If successful, I would hope that we could begin within a year of the award and be complete within two years,” McKinney said.

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