Cambria County, Pa., Pulls Plug on Outdated Municipal Broadband

The system, originally built using emergency radio funds, was troubled from the start. Revenue fell to nearly 15 percent of what was expected and will now be phased out, leaving county residents to explore the market for Internet.

by Jocelyn Brumbaugh, The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa. / August 31, 2016

(TNS) -- Eight years after it was established, Cambria County officials are still working to completely phase out a former countywide wireless internet network that was considered outdated almost as soon as it was implemented.

In 2008, Cambria County commissioners approved the formation of Cambria Connected, a broadband system meant to provide internet access to residents, schools, municipalities, businesses and public safety departments in Cambria’s most rural areas.

The system was implemented using a portion of a $9.1 million project to fulfill what officials said was an unfunded mandate from the federal government to replace low-band radios within 911 emergency systems.

By 2013, the project had been scaled back to serve fewer customers, meaning significantly less revenue. That’s when the commissioners decided to get out of the internet business by writing off about $3.2 million worth of debt accumulated from the project.

At that time, when a resolution was unanimously passed to restructure a portion of the debt and change accounting practices for Cambria Connected, the network had about 600 rural residential and business customers – a volume that wasn’t enough to upkeep the network’s infrastructure.

While officials anticipated $600,000 in annual revenue from Cambria Connected, it ended up being about a half-million less.

Allen Hostetler, operations manager for the technology department, said Cambria decided it would not continue to maintain equipment at 18 towers throughout the county in 2015. Entities still using the service were notified verbally that if necessary equipment stopped working, the county would not be replacing it.

“It was the right thing to do,” said President Commissioner Tom Chernisky, who served as a commissioner with the previous administration.

Cambria County is now working to formally notify remaining entities of the plan to fully pull out of the project, which will require them to seek their own internet providers. This list includes the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, Carrolltown Borough, Hastings Water Authority, Rock Run Recreation Park, Prince Gallitzin State Park and others.

Robbin Melnyk, Cambria 911 coordinator and deputy director of emergency services, credited the commissioners for placing the focus back on the needs of emergency services rather than continually funding an outdated network.

“It’s a good thing,” she said of phasing out Cambria Connected.

“A majority of customers already migrated” to other providers.

Chief clerk Michael Gelles said county officials are exploring the possibility of seeking bids for the remaining and now obsolete equipment on the towers.

Robert Dillon, co-owner of In the Stix Broadband, is interested in taking over the county’s towers and offering service to those customers using his own updated equipment.

The county is negotiating a potential contract with Dillon to make this official.

Dillon said In the Stix, which took over as the network’s service provider in 2010, is willing to work with the entities left without internet from the switch and has the capacity to serve those customers.

The hope is to completely shut Cambria Connected within 60 to 90 days, Gelles said.

©2016 The Tribune-Democrat (Johnstown, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.