A study on the potential for an eight-county cooperative to build broadband infrastructure through rural parts of the region is underway.
The Southern Alleghenies Development Commission kickstarted the initiative Tuesday with meetings in Bedford and Ligonier. The six-month study will be conducted by Design Nine, a Blacksburg, Virginia -based broadband network services consultant firm.
Jack Maytum, a senior business analyst for Design Nine, said the purpose of the study will identify the potential for eight counties to form a regional cooperative that could install broadband infrastructure. Broadband service providers would then be able to use the infrastructure to offer services to residents currently without it.
“There shouldn’t be any reason why, with proper planning, everybody in this county shouldn’t have access to 25 megabits (per second) download speed and 3 megabits upload speed,” Maytum said. “This is the state standard.”
Maytum said residents with DSL have one or two megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds “on a good day.”
The study will locate government owned broadband infrastructure currently in the county, and as much privately owned infrastructure as possible.
“If during course of study we determine counties need so many additional towers, we’ll pinpoint where they should be,” Maytum said.
The Southern Alleghenies Planning and Development Commission’s board of directors appointed a Regional Broadband Task Force in 2018 to locate funding resources, gaps in service, ways to increase connectivity and strengthen economic competitiveness. The task force includes Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Fayette, Fulton, Huntingdon, Somerset and Westmoreland counties.
“We were surprised at the level and consistancy of which we heard a lack of connectivity being a priority issue in the region,” Brandon Carson, director of the commission, said.
Carson said about 11,000 individuals in Bedford County are without access to 25 Mbps wired broadband speed — 22.6% of the population. The only county in the region with a higher population percentage without access is Fulton County, which has 55.2% of its population without access.
In 2019, the task force the commission received an Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) POWER grant for a Broadband Feasibility Study for the region, including two additional counties, Fayette and Westmoreland. After soliciting for proposals through a competitive process, Design Nine was selected to complete the study.
Maytum said the counties within the region creating a task force and installing the infrastructure would allow for multiple service providers to connect to residents currently without the services. The service providers would lease use of the infrastructure and deal directly with the customers.
“It’s called an open access model,” Maytum said. “In fact, I just saw the other day that New York City is releasing (Request for Proposals) where they’re looking for an open access network. So it’s not just rural areas, it’s also the largest city in the country that is unsatisfied with the current state of broadband.”
Maytum said upfront costs for the infrastructure would require grants, utility fees or bonds. He said the eight counties, which have a total population of about a million people, are projected to spend $25 billion on communication services over the next three decades.
“If we were able to capture just one percent of that, it would give us $250 million — enough to build a state of the art, 21st century network,” he said. “We’re talking about collecting a small portion of the communications expenses that people are incurring.”