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Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Eyes the Internet Business

A proposal to run high-speed, fiber-optic broadband cable along the right-of-way could cost as much as $300 million, but officials believe selling access to ISPs will make it all worth it.

(TNS) — A plan to turn Pennsylvania Turnpike right-of-way into an information superhighway with high-speed, fiber-optic broadband Internet has begun unfolding, with completion expected in three to five years.

Since October 2016, the turnpike commission has hired companies to provide legal and financial advice, developed a short list of the broadband network’s potential developers/operators and hired companies to study potential environmental obstacles.

The turnpike has set up the project as a public-private partnership. That means the turnpike will provide the right of way where the network will run and receive 288 strands of the fiber-optic cable for its own use. The chosen private developer will have an unknown number of strands to sell space on its share of the network to others.

The turnpike projects the network will cost between $250 million to $300 million, but turnpike officials said the agency could break even by selling space on its strands. The private developer will gain the right to operate the system for at least 35 years. The turnpike is also seeking $60 million in federal money.

Most of the 550-mile turnpike runs east-west near the state’s southern border, but about 110 miles stretch into Northeast Pennsylvania along an extension that starts near Norristown and ends in South Abington Twp.

“The real advantage here is this will result in a major fiber-optic cable in some rural areas where it doesn’t exist, just following the path of the turnpike,” project manager Dale Witmer said.

The cable will likely lie on the side of the highway’s shoulders, not in the median, another project manager, Neil Raup, said.

As of a few years ago, Pennsylvania had more than 803,000 citizens — about 6 percent of its population — living in places without access to high-speed, broadband Internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That includes more than 30,000 in Lackawanna County, 14 percent of its population; more than 17,500 in Luzerne County, or 5 percent; more than 24,500 in Wayne County, 45 percent; 3,400 in Wyoming County, 12 percent; more than 27,200 in Susquehanna County, 66 percent; almost 1,500 in Monroe County, 1 percent; and more than 600 in Pike County, 1 percent.

The turnpike also needs the project to connect its toll plazas with central computers and to replace its radio system because its digital microwave system is nearing capacity, spokesman Carl DeFebo said.

Barry L. Denk, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, which recently hosted a hearing on broadband Internet access, had not heard of the turnpike initiative, but praised it. Anything that expands access helps, he said.

The turnpike has already committed to spend $5.45 million. In February, the agency raised its contract for financial advice with Ernst & Young US LLP to a maximum of $1.6 million, up $700,000 from an earlier estimate. The commission also increased the contract for legal advice with Hunton & Williams LLP and McNees, Wallace and Nurick LLC to $1.35 million, up $450,000.

Turnpike officials said they had to increase the amounts because the workload turned out larger than expected.

Earlier this month, the commission hired A.D. Marble & Co. and Rettew Associates for $1.25 million each to study the network’s potential environmental effects.

Federal environmental clearances are expected by the end of the year.

In September or October, the turnpike expects to choose the network’s private operator to design, build and maintain it.

The four companies on the short list are Keystone Broadband Partners (AECOM); Keystone Broadband Partners (Star America/ Zayo Group); Penn FiberWay; and Plenary Broadband Infrastructure.

Each group has multiple companies aiding the development of its proposals.

©2018 The Times-Tribune (Scranton, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.