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Pennsylvania County With Long History Preps for Digital World

Washington County, Penn., commissioners are using American Rescue Plan Act funds there to expand broadband access with fiber-optic cable in collaboration with private Internet service providers.

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(TNS) — The earliest site of human habitation in North America is in for a digital upgrade.

Washington County has begun a three-year, $30 million project to expand internet access in the rural county, which is located about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh. The first baby steps in the project will bring service to about 50 homes in Avella, home to fewer than 1,000 people, and also to the nearby Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village. Meadowcroft, a National Historic Landmark operated by the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, was a campsite used 19,000 years ago by hunters and gatherers who left behind traces of ice age fire pits, stone and bone tools and pottery fragments.

The Washington County Commissioners are using American Rescue Plan Act funds to expand broadband access with fiber-optic cable in collaboration with private internet service providers, including Hickory Telephone Co., an outfit with its own modest beginnings.

Hickory Telephone formed in 1905 with just 13 customers.

Now, Hickory will be installing fiber-optic cable in Avella in the first step to getting the whole county wired. Hickory has about 2,000 broadband subscribers in the northwest part of the county, CEO Brian Jeffers said.

“For years, we’ve been expanding our service territory,” Mr. Jeffers said. “We’re small enough that 50 houses matter.”

Big telecommunications companies have historically overlooked rural areas for broadband service, focusing instead on signing up customers in densely populated cities to maximize their return on investment. More populated parts of Washington County, including Canonsburg and McMurray, already have speedy internet access, leaving only some rural roads, farms and other sparsely populated areas without reliable connections, Mr. Jeffers said.

These areas are also the most challenging and expensive places to wire, making the $30 million budgeted just a down payment on bringing all of the county into the digital age.

Meadowcroft, where internet and cell phone access has been spotty at best, is expected to have a speedy web hookup by the end of March, said John Timney, executive director of the Washington County Authority, which is overseeing the broadband expansion.

Getting every home and business in Washington County online will depend on funding, which the Southwest Pennsylvania Commission is exploring in a 10-county connectivity plan being developed with Carnegie Mellon University and Allies for Children, a North Side-based advocacy group. The plan is expected to launch by March.

“There’s certainly additional funding that we can leverage,” Mr. Timney said.

Money that Washington County Commissioners earmarked for broadband expansion is separate from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which contains $65 billion for erecting towers and installing the fiber-optic cable needed to upgrade internet service. Pennsylvania and other states will receive broadband funding payments of $100 million — and potentially much more, depending on need — over several years under the new law.

The first issue is finding out how many people are in the dark. No one knows exactly how many homes and businesses have slow or no internet connections in Washington County — or most anywhere else in America. Past estimates by the Federal Communications Commission have been notoriously undercounted.

The commissioners hired Portland, Maine-based Tilson Technology Management for about $90,000 to map dark areas of the county, write a comprehensive broadband plan and recommend alternative funding sources the county could tap.

But Mr. Jeffers said some areas of the county have access speeds that are a fraction of what is even considered broadband by federal standards. “Some of that is pretty bad,” he said.

Hickory provides internet speeds that are multiples faster than the FCC’s basic standards, with the capacity to go even faster with customer demand, he said.

Meadowcroft’s telephones use aging copper wires and internet access is so slow that Zoom calls are impossible, said David Scofield, director of the historic site. Outages are frequent.

A fast internet connection will allow digital file sharing between Avella and the history center’s main office in the Strip District and greatly improve cell phone reliability through the use of voice of the internet protocol, he said.

“This will be a giant leap forward for us,” Mr. Scofield said. “We’re going from the ice age to the space age.”

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