Not far outside of Williamsport’s small urban sprawl, winding roads travel over rolling hills and through small communities nestled in lush forests. It’s a feature touted as one of the area’s hidden treasures, but also means many rural areas have little to no internet access.
In a time when 5G seems to be breaking into major cities across the country, many rural neighborhoods of Northcentral, Pennsylvania, are lucky if they can get 2G. This means limited online streaming, very little access to virtual medicine and online schoolwork, not to mention home business enterprises.
As more and more people are asked to school or work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband access to remote areas has become an even more serious issue.
Partnership for expansion
Efforts to increase broadband internet speeds have been underway for years, but often hit funding roadblocks as government and private entities determine the best way to build out internet systems to rural communities hidden within the region’s many mountains and hills.
Lycoming, Union, Clinton and Northumberland counties are coming together to partner with local internet providers and state and federal entities to get grant funding for extensive expansion efforts. Lycoming County commissioners recently approved joining the partnership.
In the past, these type of partnerships would give grant funds to the counties, who may then build the system, but this time it’s “putting the ISP’s in the driver’s seat,” said Scott Kramer, principal IT specialist with SEDA-Council of Governments, which is organizing the effort.
The internet service providers know how to build out the best system, Kramer said.
“This is a good test to see if this type of project will work in delivering rural broadband,” he said.
After a bidding process with the county, the internet service provider will construct the broadband expansion and will be responsible for all upfront costs, but can be reimbursed for up to $1.5 million through the grant funds, according to Kramer.
The grant funds will come from a combination of Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal program, and the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, a state program.
In addition, each provider is expected to provide $375,000 of its own funds, or capital assets toward the project.
Kramer said he has already received letters of support from multiple providers in the region.
Projects already underway
Some internet companies, like River Valley Internet, already have begun fiber-optic construction projects in select, remote areas both in Lycoming and Clinton counties.
These project areas are picked based on their limited access to other internet services, and River Valley Internet’s ability to bring in a wireless signal to the community. Then service is provided to the entire neighborhood through fiber-optic lines along the roads, ensuring each residence is able to sign up.
Limits of hills and valleys
Pennsylvania’s rolling terrain of hills and valleys present one of the largest problems with providing wireless service. Cable services like Comcast often don’t go far beyond urban areas and so it’s up to wireless services to cover the bulk of the remaining region. Wireless services can range from a tower network, or satellite.
Internet access varies throughout the region, but usually falls into one of three methods – cable, satellite and tower coverage. Most people in urban areas have access to cable and wireless providers. Beyond the heavily populated areas, cable providers become more remote and Satellite DSL or wireless tend to take over.
Pending delays from the COVID-19 pandemic, Kramer said he hopes the grant funds will be approved by the end of the summer and construction can begin in the summer of 2021.