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County Looks to Use 911 Towers to Expand Broadband Access

by on November 28, 2018 5:00 AM

Centre County officials hope to see a wireless Internet service provider co-locate equipment on three emergency communications towers in an effort to expand broadband access to underserved areas.

The Board of Commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved advertising a request for proposals for the project.

Dale Neff, director of emergency communications, said the request for proposals would include county-owned 911 towers on Centre Hall Mountain, at Woodward in Haines Township, and behind the Willowbank Building in Bellefonte.

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.

"We’re doing this in what we see as a phased approach, covering those areas that have the greatest need first and then as time goes on do the other towers including this one out back (of the Willowbank Building)," Neff said.

While the county has other towers, contracts with many landowners limit occupancy on the properties to emergency negotiations.

"We could go to them and see if we can renegotiate the contracts to allow us to put broadband there but as of today we’re limited to the three towers," Neff said.

The county has been aware of the need for broadband service in certain areas for some time, Neff said, but his office and the county planning office needed to wait on the results of the Federal Communications Commission's Connect America Phase II, which solicited bids for service in underserved areas. None of the areas identified by Centre County were bid through the FCC project, which ended in September.

Neff said the cost of co-locating equipment, along with fees generated, will be a "considerable investment" for service providers. But Commissioner Mark Higgins noted using the existing towers provides an advantage.

"I know this helps the private sector suppliers because while there’s certainly a lot of expense to run a line to the tower and put equipment on the tower, that is nothing in comparison to the cost to build the tower, lease the tower and maintain the tower," Higgins said.

Commissioner Michael Pipe said the cost for the county to expand broadband on its own using general funds would be prohibitive, so a public-private partnership would be an ideal arrangement.

"It’s a huge need in Centre County," Pipe said. "It’s difficult for us to put general fund dollars toward broadband expansion because of the costs in terms of laying lines. But in terms of line-of-sight through our towers it’s a perfect opportunity for a public-private partnership.

"Hopefully this will get some of the more underserved areas for broadband the opportunity to connect, not just in their house but in businesses."

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