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County Continues Work on Partnership to Expand Broadband Access to Rural Areas

by on February 28, 2019 8:59 AM

Centre County commissioners this week approved entering contract negotiations for a project that aims to use 911 towers to expand broadband internet service to underserved rural areas.

The county is seeking to have a wireless internet service provider co-locate equipment on three county-owned emergency communications towers on Centre Hall Mountain, at Woodward in Haines Township, and behind the Willowbank Building in Bellefonte.

A request for proposal was put out in December and Centre WISP Venture Company LLC was the only respondent. Dave Rowles, technical services supervisor for emergency communications, said the proposal is viable and met requirements.

The county would lease the towers to Centre WISP and would not be providing a subsidy or play a role in providing the service.

"We’re simply the landlord in this, but are very supportive of getting broadband out to our rural communities," Commissioner Michael Pipe said.

More rural portions of the area have long been in need of internet service, but the county had been waiting on results of some state and federal initiatives for expanding rural broadband. The Federal Communications Commission's Connect America Phase II solicited bids for service in underserved areas, but none of the areas identified by Centre County were bid through the FCC project, which ended in September.

"There are several efforts underway to provide meaningful broadband service to rural parts of the country, Pennsylvania and Centre County included," said Dale Neff, director of emergency communications. "Today the efforts of the FCC and commonwealth of Pennsylvania have stopped short of including all the areas of the county. Recognizing this, Centre County opened up a request for bid to invite wireless internet service providers to enter into a landlord-tenant agreement with Centre County so they could locate on 911 towers in or near these areas to provide broadband services to citizens."

Neff previously said the project would likely be phased. The Centre Hall tower, which would provide the opportunity to offer wireless internet connection to much of Brush Valley Road and the area northwest of Spring Mills, and the Woodward tower would be the first priority because the Penns Valley area is more underserved than the area which could be covered by the Wilowbank tower, which would include Bellefonte, Pleasant Gap, Milesburg and large portions of Buffalo Run Road.

Commissioner Steve Dershem said that the project is not a cure-all, but would provide a better option for some residents.

"We’re going to be making every effort to make sure we get a provider that provides for as a broad an area, but obviously it’s line of sight," Dershem said. "It might not extend as far and might not be as fast everybody would wish but I’m sure a lot better than some of the alternatives out there right now. It’s our way of opening up options to underserved areas of the county to provide internet service in a way that’s reasonable and prudent."

Commissioner Mark Higgins noted that rural broadband is one of six priorities this year for the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. Pipe, meanwhile, said officials outside of Centre County are interested in the project.

"The state stakeholders who are interested in broadband, from our representatives to our senator all the way to the governor’s office, have interest in this and are watching very closely to see what kind of customer buy-in occurs," Pipe said.

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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