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CARES Act Funding Helps Some Pa. Counties Improve Broadband Access, But Some Find It Limiting

This map projects the broadband internet coverage in McKean County when its current improvement project completes by the end of 2020. Areas in red will have the highest speeds and areas in blue and green will receive at least 25 Mbps in download speeds.
Courtesy of McKean County
This map projects the broadband internet coverage in McKean County when its current improvement project completes by the end of 2020. Areas in red will have the highest speeds and areas in blue and green will receive at least 25 Mbps in download speeds.

Lack of access to broadband internet is a long-existing issue in many parts of Pennsylvania. The pandemic has proven how critical it is, as schools have moved online and remote work has become a way of life.

“You’ve seen the Governor’s new orders, where they would like people to work at home as much as possible. Well, it’s impossible for a lot of people to work at home because they don't have the broadband they need to work at home,” said Huntingdon County Commissioner Jeff Thomas.

In May, Governor Tom Wolf signed into law Act 24 of 2020, which provides $625 million in CARES Act funding from the federal government to counties. Sixty Pennsylvania counties received varying amounts to help small businesses, nonprofits and local governments offset costs accrued because of COVID-19.

One thing counties are allowed to spend money on is broadband internet. In Huntingdon County, more than $1 million has been allocated for two projects to expand high speed internet options.

Commissioner Thomas said the county awarded Upward Broadband and Rural Broadband Cooperative more than half a million dollars each, to make fixed wireless broadband available to at least a dozen municipalities by the end of the year.

“What’s really impressive is these companies didn’t start until October,” Thomas said. “And to have that amount of work done and that has to be done where customers can call and say, ‘Hey, I want on’ by December 30. So that’s sort of impressive.”

Counties are required to use up their CARES Act funding by December 30. Thomas said he would’ve considered spending even more of the $4 million Huntingdon received toward broadband if there wasn’t a deadline.

In Warren County, Commissioner Ben Kafferlin said not being able to meet the deadline requirement is why his county won’t be spending any CARES Act dollars on broadband at all.

“Originally we had slated $500,000 to go towards these broadband projects, but the timeline just ended up being impossible,” Kafferlin said. The county redistributed that half a million to support businesses and other COVID-19 related expenses.

Kafferlin said the need for broadband is huge in Warren -- an estimated 3,000 students don’t have access to support remote learning. The county is looking at other plans to improve its internet, but they take time and money.

But his neighboring county, McKean, finds the CARES Act funding a godsend.

McKean County Commissioner Carol Duffy said the county has been laying the groundwork for a broadband improvement project since 2017. The county surveyed internet speeds, identified underserved areas and looked for grants, but funding remained “a huge barrier.”

“The CARES funding has really been a catalyst to be able to do this for our residents,” Duffy said.

McKean County is dedicating a third of its CARES Act funds, which is about $1.2 million, to building six sites that will broadcast wireless signals.

Even though the ultimate goal will be to provide access to high speed internet for all residents, Commissioner Tom Kreiner said the current focus is to build at locations where new infrastructure can be established the fastest.

“We’ve got the project divided out into phases [and] areas where we can make the biggest impact,” Kreiner said. “And then [we will] continue to grow onto that as well.”

The county said the new service is expected to provide at least 25 megabits per second in download speeds. That’s significantly faster than its current median download rate of 4 megabits per second, according to a 2018 study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. All but one school district in the county will benefit from the upgrade.

With this momentum, McKean County is applying for a USDA grant to expand the work done with the CARES Act funding. Commissioner Cliff Lane said the improved broadband internet supports remote work, online learning and telehealth.

“It’s something that we felt was going to be almost impossible to do a couple years ago, because of lack of funds,” Lane said. “And we’ve actually come up with a different way to do it with less funds needed to reach more people. Even a couple hundred people with fibre would cost a lot more than $1.2 million we’re looking at doing, so that itself is huge.”

Blair and Cambria counties have also allocated CARES Act dollars to expand broadband. Some other counties, like Clinton and Lycoming, are using funding from sources other than the CARES Act to improve high speed internet access.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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