‘Infrastructure of the future’: Broadband gets boost in Beaver, Fayette counties

Expanded access to the internet inches along in southwestern Pennsylvania, with internet service providers chosen in Beaver County and a consultant hired in Fayette County to map service dead spots.

The Connect Beaver County Broadband Program on Thursday announced that Butler-based Armstrong was chosen to provide internet services to Hanover Township and Windstream Holdings Inc. of Little Rock, Arkansas., was chosen for Darlington Township, South Beaver Township and Big Beaver Borough.

“These projects are an integral part of the county leadership’s larger program to bring new broadband and improved service to parts of 24 municipalities in Beaver County using nearly $20 million in our American Rescue Plan funding,” Beaver County Commissioner Tony Amadio said in a prepared statement.

The total value of the Armstrong contract was $360,000 and the Winstream contract value was $667,273.

The Hanover Township project will provide broadband service to 65 unserved locations along Hanover Kendall Road, Airline Drive and Hanny Beaver Road. The Darlington, South Beaver, and Big Beaver projects include 139 places along the Route 51 corridor, including Route 551 and Stitt Road.

The areas were expected to go live by the end of 2023. A survey of internet availability in the county was finished in December.

In each contract, the companies will pick up 50% of the project cost and the balance will be paid from Beaver’s ARPA funds. Planning, permitting and design work was scheduled to begin in the fall.

Beaver County aims to expand broadband service to parts of two dozen municipalities where service is poor or unavailable.

“All 10 counties in the (Pittsburgh) region have something going on in terms of broadband,” said Jeremy Jurick, vice president and national broadband services director at Downtown-based Michael Baker International, a consultant to many counties in the region. “No one is waiting to see what happens.”

Fayette County recently hired Michael Baker for $173,886 to identify areas with poor internet service, Commissioner Vince Vicites said. The survey is expected to be done by the end of the year and it’ll be submitted to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for need-based grant funding to expand service still more broadly.

A similar survey of internet dead spots began in July in Westmoreland County. Bedford, Crawford, Washington and Indiana are other counties where broadband expansions are underway.

NTIA was allocated more than $48 billion of $65 billion that was contained in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 to fund the infrastructure needed for universal broadband access through grants. Each state will receive an initial $100 million for planning, then later grants will be awarded to install fiber cable and other needed infrastructure, with priority given to areas with poor or no service.

Pennsylvania is expected to eventually receive about $1 billion to get as many residents as possible connected to the internet.

Separately, the newly formed 11-member Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority recently received $278 million through the Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund, a federal grant program that is part of the American Rescue Plan, to coordinate internet access expansion in the state.

State Rep. Pam Snyder, a Democrat from Greene County and a member of the Broadband Development Authority, said the federal government will develop maps showing internet service availability, which will be the basis of need-based grants to expand service.

“The reality is the feds are really driving the bus,” Ms. Snyder said.

While the survey gets underway in Fayette County, the commissioners have been pushing ahead by awarding a $5.6 million contract to Vitalink LLC to install fiber optic cable and wireless hot spots between the company’s headquarters in Markleysburg Borough and North and South Union townships. In addition, the county will open bids Tuesday for an estimated $2 million project that will bring service to routes 51 and 201 near the Westmoreland County line.

“This is the infrastructure of the future,” Mr. Vicites said. “We’ve got to be positioned to get this installed, which will help us economically for many decades to come.”

Preliminary NTIA maps show that 22% of Fayette County homes were without an internet connection and 18.5% did not have computers, laptops or smartphones necessary to use the internet. Among the sources of funding that is expanding broadband access in Fayette County is money from the American Rescue Plan Act, Community Development Block Grant and municipal contributions, Mr. Vicites said.

“We’re asking everybody to be patient, but we’re making good progress,” he said.