Effort aims to fill broadband gap in Somerset County
Looking at a map of broadband internet resources in Southwestern Pennsylvania is a little like looking at a Jackson Pollock painting.
Erratic splotches of fiber-optic service are heaviest in large urban areas such as Allegheny County but dwindle to trails of small spots in rural areas such as Somerset County.
Bridging that “digital divide” — in which remote parts of the state don't enjoy the internet speeds of the big cities — is becoming more of a priority for local officials, who see broadband availability as the key to economic development.
“Definitely, the high-speed portion is where we're lacking,” said Somerset County Commissioner Gerald Walker. “For our existing industry in the county, so much of their ordering … is done over the internet anymore. It just hampers them in their ability to work to their full potential.”
Somerset County officials hope to overcome that technology deficit, at least in part, with a project that will extend fiber-optic cable to four key industrial areas by next year. Federal and state grants totaling $1.5 million, plus a match from commissioners, will fund the installation of 22 miles of fiber-optic cable to bring broadband to more than 1,000 businesses and 3,900 households, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.
The expansion will include the Somerset Industrial Park and Laurel Highlands Business Park, both near the county seat of Somerset, the borough of Meyersdale in the southern part of the county and the North Star Industrial Park in Jenner Township, according to the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
Commissioners plan to release a Request for Proposals later this month and to award a contract by the end of the summer, Walker said. Their long-term goal is for residents, schools, libraries and businesses to be able to tie into the fiber-optic system, he said.
“We're hoping to get whatever we can out of the $1.5 million,” Walker said. “We'd love to see it expand. We've already been approached by other communities. We're hoping it starts the ball rolling.”
Two Westmoreland County internet providers — Citizens Fiber and LHTC Broadband — have expressed an interest in the project, which builds on their efforts to expand broadband service in the eastern and southern parts of Westmoreland County.
Tim Pisula, an analyst with LHTC Broadband, said the Stahlstown-based company likely will bid on the project.
“It'd be fairly easy from a network design perspective for us to run fiber from our central office and Indian Head into Somerset,” he said. “This network would border our existing service area, so it's a logical extension for us.”
LHTC Broadband, founded as a local telephone company in 1908, provides fiber-to-the-home service to 3,500 customers in Westmoreland and Fayette counties. Citizens Fiber, founded as a local telephone company in 1906, switched 2,500 of its cable modem customers to fiber in November. Both offer gigabit internet, with upload and download speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second (Mbps), and both are looking to expand.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as internet access at speeds of at least 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. In a 2016 study, the FCC said 18 percent of Somerset County's population doesn't have broadband internet, compared to 3 percent in Westmoreland County and 1 percent in Allegheny County.
The “digital divide” persists, in part, because of the unwillingness of larger providers to build the necessary infrastructure in rural areas, Pisula said. Running fiber-optic cable “from farm to farm” is not considered cost-effective, he said.
“We're not as appetizing as some of the bigger areas,” Walker said. “It is sometimes hard to get them to show interest.”
“It's a very expensive endeavor to get those lines out there and to maintain them — versus the revenues from a dispersed number of customers,” said Robert Dillon, co-owner of In the Stix Broadband, based in Cresson.
The company provides internet to underserved communities in Cambria County and portions of Somerset County via wireless microwave technology. Customers have upload and download speeds of 3 or 6 Mbps, while some have access to download speeds of 10 Mbps and upload speeds of 5 Mbps, Dillon said.
“We are trying to get closer to what the FCC defines as broadband,” he said.
One of the main costs of running fiber to underserved areas has to do with what Zach Cutrell of Citizens Fiber calls the politics of pole attachments. For a company to have access to a utility pole requires the permission of whoever owns the communications space on the pole — often the incumbent telephone company in the area, he said.
Such permission usually comes with costs and delays that are prohibitive for small companies such as Citizens Fiber, Cutrell said.
“It's an extremely frustrating case to bring high-speed internet into those areas,” he said, noting that the cost can be $3,000 to $4,000 per pole. “Is there enough of a demand to justify us building into those areas?”