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Berks County, Pa., Shares Study, Budget for Broadband Expansion

The findings, compiled by a contractor, outlined an important blueprint about what needs the county should focus on moving forward, officials said. It also gives the county credibility as it competes for grant funding.

(TNS) — There's a digital divide in Berks County, and county officials are prepared to invest a significant amount of money to help close it.

At a county operations meeting Tuesday, the results of a countywide network feasibility study were unveiled.

The study, which was conducted by independent contractor Lit Communities, takes a look at broadband access and availability. It was funded by the county in partnership with the Berks Alliance, the United Way of Berks County and the Wyomissing Foundation.

The report shows that there are parts of Berks that are unserved or underserved when it comes to broadband Internet and that there is a need to increase digital literacy, particularly among older residents.

Some of the key findings from the study include:
  • There are clear gaps in broadband infrastructure that have a direct impact on residents, businesses and service organizations.
  • There is a critical need to improve digital literacy among residents. That refers to the ability of people to navigate, evaluate and communicate information online.
  • There are opportunities to improve outreach to those who are unserved or underserved by working with willing partners.
  • There is a general satisfaction with speed and reliability of current Internet services but a concern about the lack of competition for Internet providers in some communities.

Justin Loose, the chief information officer for the county, said the findings outlined in the study provide an important blueprint about what needs the county should focus on moving forward. It also gives county officials credibility as they compete for grant funding.

The study was commissioned shortly after the passage of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill, which includes a massive investment in the country's broadband infrastructure that aims to narrow the digital divide.

Pennsylvania has received more than $100 million to help provide broadband coverage across the state, including providing access to at least 394,000 Pennsylvanians who currently lack it and offering a benefit to help struggling families afford Internet service.

Loose, who serves as the chairman of Berks County Broadband Task Force, said the group has taken the findings from the study and compiled a list of recommendations they believe will best position the county to take advantage of these opportunities.

Those recommendations are:

  1. Allocate $5.7 million toward infrastructure projects with the intent of leveraging this investment into more thorough grants, partnerships and other funding.
  2. Actively pursue grant or private funding to address broadband connectivity gaps.
  3. Allocate $600,000 to fund two pilot digital literacy programs.
  4. Initiate dialog with neighboring counties to identify opportunities for collaboration.
  5. Continue dialogue with new and incumbent carriers to identify opportunities for collaboration to address the unserved and underserved.
  6. Collaborate with municipalities, authorities and other stakeholders to look at opportunities for infrastructure build-out including right of way and "dig once" opportunities.

Loose said that while these recommendations may not address every broadband issue for every county resident, these actions should go a long way in helping to expand access to reliable and affordable Internet service.

"We have an unprecedented amount of money coming from the federal and state government," Loose told the commissioners. "We know this money is going to be competitive so part of what is coloring our recommendations is ensuring the county is in the position to quickly and rapidly move on the funding opportunities that are coming."

Loose said that most of these federal and state programs will require a 15% match.

The county commissioners agreed with that assessment. And they said they believe setting money aside now will ensure that the county gets a bigger return down the road.

Commissioners Kevin Barnhardt and Michael Rivera thanked the members of the broadband task force for their hard work crafting a blueprint for the future. They said they view the initial $6.3 million investment by the county as something that will end up paying dividends in the decades to come.

Commissioners Chairman Christian Leinbach said the county has a crucial role to play in ensuring that its residents have what they need to live in the 21st century. He pointed out that throughout history there have been many inventions that have gone from being a beneficial service to an essential service.

And, he said, the Internet is one of them.

"In the last five years, the Internet has gone from beneficial to essential," he said. "If you can't schedule a doctor's appointment without an email address or if you can't apply for a job without going online it is essential."

The commissioners said they plan on approving the formal funding request at an upcoming board meeting.

©2022 the Reading Eagle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.