County hits pause on broadband project

Perry County is hitting the pause button on its broadband internet project so it can consider additional funding avenues that might expand and improve internet service, county commissioners said on Nov. 23.

Commissioner Brenda Watson said she wanted to “slow up” the pace of the project after the commissioners came back from their annual association’s conference, where they learned about project models other counties are using. She said the commissioners don’t want to rush things and explore all options to make Perry’s project better.

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

At the conference, she said there was at least one county able to get various grants from state and federal sources, as well as private funding, worth a total of $38 million to provide an all-fiber-optic network in their county. It was just one example of how counties can expand on the broadband funding they have to do even more.

However, Watson reiterated nothing is written in stone, and the county simply wants to explore all options before it signs contracts to spend millions of dollars. Solutions that worked for other counties may not be the best for Perry, she said.

The announcement comes after Watson said last week the county was nearing decisions within weeks.

Perry County is negotiating with two service providers to expand high-speed internet, but construction of the facilities that would bring it to homes and businesses is unlikely to start until 2022, the county’s tech consultants said. The county earlier this year agreed to negotiate with Upward Broadband, a wireless internet provider from Lancaster County, and Zito Media, a wired provider from Coudersport.

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

Prior to Watson’s announcement, McConahy said some aspects could start sooner.

“Any work that would occur between now and the end of the year would be all behind the scene prep items to start in full swing in January,” he said in a Nov. 19 email to the newspaper.

There are many technical requirements to work through to coordinate services between several companies to maximize broadband to the most-needed areas of the county. For the most part, that’s areas west of New Bloomfield, but there are gaps in service even in the eastern part of the county. There also are deficiencies in service from existing providers, according to maps in the proposals from Zito and Upward.

That’s been an ongoing issue for years, including most recently outages because of flooding related to the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which hit some parts of Philadelphia and New York City hard. CenturyLink’s outages garnered harsh criticism from state legislators including Perry Stambaugh and John DiSanto, who represent Perry County.

The current federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has given leverage to local elected officials to negotiate for not only new infrastructure from smaller companies, but also to demand improvements from larger companies such as CenturyLink.

“We’re working through some issues we have with the companies and their service,” Watson said in October, noting the county was talking with both CenturyLink and Zito about improvements to existing services.

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

In the past, questions to CenturyLink about its older DSL service in the county, outages and deficiencies have been met with few answers about when residents and businesses could expect upgrades. Meanwhile, complaints piled up from those using the service.

“We’ve 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 for any single provider to serve due to the cost of building and maintaining the network infrastructure and the demand for robust, 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 filings, the company reported net income of $544 million for the quarter alone, a 48 percent increase from a year ago.

“We recently met with Perry County commissioners and representatives to review local broadband needs, which will be taken into consideration in future buildout plans,” CenturyLink said.

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

Perry County has about $9 million in ARPA funding to expand broadband and finance other infrastructure needs such as upgrades to water and wastewater facilities. ARPA was passed earlier this year to help communities rebound from economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Deficient internet was a large issue for schools, employers and government as more people stayed at home to prevent the spread of the virus.

The most recent infrastructure bill Congress passed, and President Joe Biden signed on Nov. 15, is expected to provide millions of dollars more to states and local communities to continue such projects. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes $55 billion for water infrastructure and $65 billion for additional broadband investments, according to the White House’s assessment. The county has not yet seen additional money from the most-recent federal legislation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Office recently announced it was accepting grant and loan applications for nearly $1.2 billion it has under IIJA to help rural communities expand high-speed internet. The office has funded other Perry County infrastructure projects in the past, including Bloomfield’s recently completed water facilities and Newport’s wastewater plant.

Jim T. Ryan can be reached via email at [email protected]

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