County cuts off broadband project

Perry County is pressing the pause button on its broadband internet project so it can consider additional funding opportunities that could expand and improve internet service, county commissioners said on November 23.

Commissioner Brenda Watson said she wanted to ‘slow down’ the pace of the project after the commissioners returned from their association’s annual conference, where they learned about project models that other countries are using. She said the commissioners didn’t want to rush things and explore all options to improve Perry’s project.

“We want a good fit for the next 20 to 25 years, instead of mixing and matching systems that might not work,” Watson said.

At the conference, she said there was at least one county capable of securing various grants from state and federal sources, as well as private funding, worth a total of $ 38 million to provide a fully networked network. fiber optic in their county. This was just one example of how counties can expand broadband funding they need to do even more.

However, Watson reiterated that nothing was set in stone and the county just wanted to explore all options before signing contracts to spend millions of dollars. Solutions that have worked for other counties may not be the best for Perry, she said.

The announcement comes after Watson said last week the county was on the verge of making decisions in a matter of weeks.

Perry County is negotiating with two service providers to expand high-speed internet, but construction on the facilities that would bring it to homes and businesses is not expected to begin until 2022, the county’s technical consultants have said. Earlier this year, the county agreed to negotiate with Upward Broadband, a Lancaster County wireless internet provider, and Zito Media, a Coudersport wireline provider.

The optimistic outlook was that parts of the project could begin before Christmas, said Sid McConahy, a technician with Mission Critical Partners (MCP) who coordinates the project for the county. MCP is the county’s technology consultant for several areas, including emergency communications and computer systems. However, the physical labor most likely wouldn’t start until the New Year, he said.

Ahead of Watson’s announcement, McConahy said some aspects may start earlier.

“All the work that takes place by the end of the year would all be behind-the-scenes preparations to get under way in January,” he said in a Nov. 19 email to the newspaper.

There are many technical requirements that must be met in order to coordinate services between multiple companies in order to maximize broadband to the most needed areas of the county. For the most part these are areas west of New Bloomfield, but there are service gaps even in the eastern part of the county. There are also gaps in the service of existing suppliers, according to the maps of the Zito and Upward proposals.

It has been an ongoing problem for years, including the latest outages due to flooding linked to the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which hit parts of Philadelphia and New York hard. The CenturyLink outages drew fierce criticism from state lawmakers, including Perry Stambaugh and John DiSanto, who represent Perry County.

Current federal funding for the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has enabled local officials to not only negotiate new infrastructure with small businesses, but also to demand improvements from large companies such as CenturyLink.

“We are working on some issues that we have with businesses and their services,” Watson said in October, noting that the county was discussing with CenturyLink and Zito improvements to existing services.

Zito declined to comment on the broadband project until the contracts were finalized. It acquired the old Nittany Media, which had cable services in the county.

In the past, questions to CenturyLink about its old DSL service in the county, outages and deficiencies have elicited little response on when residents and businesses could expect upgrades. Meanwhile, complaints from users of the service have piled up.

“We have made significant investments in our network to bring broadband access to every corner of our service territory where it is economically feasible. Rural areas like Perry County are difficult to serve for a single vendor due to the cost of building and maintaining network infrastructure and the demand for robust and higher broadband speeds, ”the company said. in an email.

CenturyLink is part of Lumen Technologies, a publicly traded company based in Louisiana. In its September third quarter documents, the company reported net income of $ 544 million for the quarter alone, an increase of 48% from a year ago.

“We recently met with commissioners and representatives from Perry County to review local broadband needs, which will be considered in future construction plans,” CenturyLink said.

In October, Commissioner Watson said negotiations were going well and companies were cooperating.

Perry County has around $ 9 million in ARPA funding to expand broadband and fund other infrastructure needs such as water and wastewater upgrades. ARPA was adopted earlier this year to help communities recover from the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. A poor internet connection was a major problem for schools, employers and the government as more people stayed at home to prevent the spread of the virus.

The most recent infrastructure bill passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden on November 15 is expected to provide millions of additional dollars to states and local communities to pursue such projects. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) provides for $ 55 billion for water infrastructure and $ 65 billion for additional investments in broadband, according to the White House assessment. The county has yet to see additional money from the most recent federal legislation.

The Rural Development Office of the United States Department of Agriculture recently announced that it is accepting applications for grants and loans for the nearly $ 1.2 billion it has available under the IIJA to help rural communities. to develop broadband Internet. The office has funded other Perry County infrastructure projects in the past, including the recently completed Bloomfield water supply facilities and the Newport sewage treatment plant.

Jim T. Ryan can be contacted by email at [email protected]

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