State, Federal Grants to Aid Internet Push into Rural Pennsylvania

Internet providers have been reluctant to extend coverage to rural areas because it has not been cost-efficient, but now one company received federal and state funding to expand its services in Erie, Crawford and Mercer counties.

by David Bruce, Erie Times-News / March 19, 2019
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(TNS) — Thirty years after the creation of the world wide web, a majority of Erie County residents who live south of Interstate 90 still don't have access to fixed, high-speed Internet service.

They struggle with digital subscriber line plans that aren't fast enough to stream more than one video at a time, or satellite Internet plans that are often expensive, suffer from delays and are prone to weather-related outages.

"You get outside of places like Union City, Corry and Albion, there is little to no coverage," said Erick Friedman, Erie County's director of information technology. "Even the area just northwest of Edinboro is a problem."

This Internet divide will soon close for thousands of rural residents when Butler-based Armstrong Broadband provides high-speed Internet to areas of southern and eastern Erie County. Installation began in the fall and is expected to be completed this spring.

Internet providers have been reluctant to extend coverage to rural areas because it has not been cost-efficient, but Armstrong received federal and state funding to expand its services in Erie, Crawford and Mercer counties.

Armstrong received $2.6 million from the federal Connect America Fund and another $1.2 million from Pennsylvania's Broadband Investment Incentive Program. Armstrong is investing as much as three times that amount of its own money in the process, said Shawn Beqaj, Armstrong's vice president of regulatory policy and interconnection.

"We look at the cost of installing and maintaining our lines in areas with only four or five homes per mile," Beqaj said. "Typically the long-term return in areas like that make it unprofitable to operate lines in these areas. But these [funding] programs allow us to extend our services to areas with only five homes per mile."

In return for the funding, Armstrong promised to provide Internet service of up to 100 megabits per second to the affected areas by the spring of 2022.

Customers who live in the affected areas will be able to purchase Internet service at the same price as other Armstrong customers, Beqaj said. Armstong charges about $50 a month for 50 Mbps of service and around $65 a month for 100 Mbps.

"Only 25 percent to 30 percent of Erie County residents who live south of I-90 have access to a fixed Internet source that provides at least 25 Mbps, so this will help," Friedman said.

In an effort to find out exactly which Erie County residents don't have access to high-speed Internet, the county is preparing a short survey. The survey is expected to be released later this month and will be available on the county's website.

"Anyone in the county can take the survey but we're really interested in people who have slow broadband Internet or none at all," Friedman said. "We want to know where they live and the type of Internet they use."

Friedman said he hopes to include the survey in local newspapers so that people without Internet access can participate.

©2019 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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