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Partnership Provides Broadband Access to Rural Residents in County

by and on October 07, 2019 5:00 AM

Centre County government realized last year it had a potential tool to help provide broadband internet service to people in the county who weren’t able to get it. In a public-private partnership, the county decided to lease space on the county 911 towers to a private internet provider to offer broadband service to county residents.

Centre WISP recently started leasing three county 911 towers to provide internet service to residents.

“Public-private partnerships are recognition that the government does certain things well and the private industry does certain things well,” said David Gibbons, founder of Centre WISP, at the Oct. 1 Centre County Board of Commissioners meeting.

“In this case, this private company excels at solutions to problems that, in the past, have been a conundrum, such as delivering fast internet access to rural residents," Gibbons said. "And on the other hand, the public government does certain things well also, and in this case it needs to provide cellphone towers to provide 911 coverage that we all depend on. And in some cases, those towers are a bit underutilized.”

By allowing Centre WISP to use the 911 towers, the county benefits in two ways, said Gibbons; the county is bringing in revenue through the lease and helping to provide broadband services to residents in rural areas.

In December 2018, the county asked for project bids and in February, Centre WISP was awarded the bid from the county. In July the company mounted the first equipment on the Centre Hall 911 tower. In September it added more equipment to that tower and initiated service at the Woodward tower to increase service in Millheim and Spring Mills.

Moving forward the company plans to install equipment at a commercial tower on Tussey Mountain this month or in November, providing coverage to Georges Valley. In 2020 it plans to install equipment on a commercial tower in Rebersburg. It will also complete installation on the Willowbank 911 tower in Bellefonte. Gibbons said the company also continues to explore additional tower sites.

The towers provide wireless broadband service by sending a signal from the mounted equipment. Gibbons said this is a cost effective way to provide service in rural areas because the company does not have to run cable. The signal can travel 15 miles from the tower.

While customers must have a line of sight to the towers to receive the service, Gibbons said there are ways to manipulate the signal by bending around corners so residents in some of the “nooks and crannies” of the valley get service.

Gibbons also said there is no loss of service during periods of bad weather.

“This comes up all the time because people are aware of satellite television or satellite internet going out when its cloudy or when it rains. Does the weather degrade this service? The answer is ‘no,’” Gibbons said.

He said the company is currently serving more than 100 customers in Centre County, with most customers receiving broadband speeds based on the federal standard of 25 megabits or higher. Residents who home school or use cyber school, according to Gibbons, have said the higher speed access has enabled them to use technology that is necessary for cyber learning, such as video chatting and viewing streaming videos.

“We have also seen several large employers, community centers and health care facilities, particularly along the Route 45 corridors as you head from Centre Hall to Woodward, use the service. We are enabling things like telemedicine — that’s imaging, that’s e-medical records, things like that — that otherwise would have been extremely expensive for these facilities or even inaccessible before,” said Gibbons. “And finally we hear a lot from citizens who just want to be able to use the internet like their friends use the internet. That’s streaming videos, it’s YouTube, its Netflix … it’s things like that.”

Gibbons said Centre WISP has invested $150,000 in equipment, labor and network so far.

A big impact, Gibbons said, has been that people in these areas can now telecommute to work, saving travel time and bringing high-paying city wages to the county.

“We’ve heard from people who work at Penn State who no longer have to drive to campus every day. We’ve heard from folks who work for companies in large metro areas, Washington, D.C., for example, who can now telecommute,” he said.

“So far it has been a very good partnership. The impact to the 911 towers has been very minimal. The equipment is very small. The first-responder network in that community is already seeing the benefits. Miles Township Fire Department for example, (its) internet service speed has grown exponentially. (It) is able to do live video trainings now, something it has never been able to do before, so the impact there has been terrific,” said Centre County 911 Director Dale Neff.

“Those of us in urban areas, like State College, Bellefonte and Philipsburg kind of forget what it was like before you had high-speed internet and you were relying on satellite or DSL or even dial up,” said commissioner Mark Higgins.

He said the partnership could be emulated by other municipalities.

“There are only four counties in the state that are providing some kind of internet access through private-public partnerships,” said Higgins. “This is potentially a model that could be used statewide and even nationally.”

This story was produced by the staff at the Centre County Gazette. It was re-published with permission. The Centre County Gazette is a weekly publication, available at many locations around Centre County every Thursday morning.

Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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