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Pittsburgh Area Town May Have Region’s Slowest Internet

In heavily wooded Cook Township, 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the average Internet speed is so slow that it barely qualifies as broadband, according to the new federal minimum standard.

(TNS) — In heavily wooded Cook Township, 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, the average internet speed is so slow that it barely qualifies as broadband, according to the new federal minimum standard.

In fact, a new survey in Westmoreland County found that the average internet speed in Cook was the slowest among 62 of the 65 municipalities reporting — a problem that grew acute at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when kids were forced to stay home to learn online, said Janine Vallano, director of technology and data at the Ligonier Valley School District, which includes Cook.

"The hope is somebody does something when they see these numbers," she said about the average internet speed in Cook, one of nine municipalities making up the school district of about 1,400 students. "My district is in dire need of assistance here."

The average broadband download speed in the township was 10 megabits of data per second download, nine megabits upload — a fraction of the new federal standard of 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload.

In Ligonier, the nearest town and a popular spot for visitors to the Laurel Highlands, the average download internet speed was just over half as fast as the new federal broadband minimum.

The Westmoreland County broadband survey, released Friday, contains internet availability information from 2,504 respondents. Downtown-based engineering firm Michael Baker International conducted the survey through October and the results will be used to challenge Federal Communications Commission internet coverage numbers, which are scheduled for release Thursday.

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"The FCC's upcoming challenge process is one of the best chances to ensure that we have accurate maps guiding us as we allocate major Internet for All Awards in 2023," Alan Davidson, assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said in a prepared release.

Using FCC maps, the NTIA is scheduled to issue the first grants by June.

Included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021 was an historic $65 billion to expand affordable and reliable high speed broadband in the U.S.

Funding will be awarded according to areas of greatest need, which includes many rural areas where service has been poor or unavailable. Western Pennsylvania counties have been doing similar surveys in preparation to challenge the federal government's numbers.

In Westmoreland County, 18% of survey respondents reported unreliable internet service; 11% said their service was very unreliable.

Ligonier Valley's experience reaching students online at home was common at many rural areas of Western Pennsylvania when COVID-19 lockdowns kept students out of the classroom. With slow or spotty service, parents suddenly found their internet needs quickly outstripping capacity, Ms. Vallano said.

"Families were saying they couldn't connect," she said. "The speeds just weren't there to support multiple kids online. Some families didn't have service at all."

The school district responded by placing broadband hot spots at fire halls and allowing students to sign on just by being near school buildings. Demand for the hot spots, which depend on cell service to boost an internet signal, soared, Ms. Vallano said.

Even now, after the height of the pandemic, the district is preparing to distribute 140 hot spots to allow students to complete lessons online, which Ms. Vallano said she considers "quite a big number for such a small school district."

"Something has to be done for these families," she said. "It needs to be treated like a utility rather than a nice thing."

© 2022 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.