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Westmoreland County, Pa., Doubles Its Broadband Upgrade Plans

The upgrades come as a followup to a study by the county last year that, according to preliminary results, determined as much as 71 percent of the area is underserved by existing broadband infrastructure.

Closeup of a pile of yellow broadband cables with blue caps.
(TNS) — As much as $3 million will be spent this year on four projects aimed at improving high-speed internet access in Westmoreland County, commissioners said.

These broadband upgrades come as a followup to a study by the county last year that, according to preliminary results, determined as much as 71% of the area is underserved by existing broadband infrastructure and significant portions, including rural areas in the eastern portion of the county, have little to no internet service.

Commissioners initially authorized two small projects to upgrade broadband infrastructure but over the past month decided to double the county's plans.

"I view it as a kick-start to show the public we are capable of leading these efforts and taking the need in the county seriously," Commissioner Doug Chew said. "We're all excited to add these two additional projects, and it's something that makes sense considering if you start to have people buying more and more of the materials to make this work, let's get it done before the prices start to inflate as the supply chain dwindles."

Commissioner Sean Kertes said the projects will be undertaken in the eastern part of the county.

Details of the projects, such as their exact locations and scope of work, will be announced Thursday at Ligonier Valley High School when the county reveals the final version of the broadband study, according to Planning Director Jason Rigone.

Rigone said as many as 400 residents could be impacted by the four projects, which are likely to include installation of more than 30 miles of cable to support the broadband upgrades.

Private internet companies will be asked to submit proposals for the jobs, and county officials said they anticipate a competitive process ultimately will reduce the cost of the work.

"We presented four options to the commissioners to really consider two of the four, but through conversations internally, it was determined ... to move forward with all four projects," Rigone said.

Commissioners agreed to pay Michael Baker International an additional $39,100 to finalize plans for the broadband infrastructure upgrades and for work completed over the last month to help the county file a challenge with the Federal Communications Commission over its broadband service maps released late last year.

Those maps indicated that most areas of the county had 100% broadband service, a finding that is at odds with the county study conducted in 2022.

The cost of the county's study and the funding for the planned broadband enhancements will be paid for from the county's American Rescue Plan allocation. With Thursday's contract amendments, Michael Baker will receive more than $698,000 to work on the county's broadband study and projects.

The county's study, based on online surveys and actual readings recorded by technicians in the late summer and fall, found residents in more than 20 of the county's 65 municipalities had internet service that fell below federal standards based on self-reported tests of internet speeds.

Those underserved areas included rural communities such as Cook, Derry, Fairfield, Ligonier, Upper Burrell and South Huntingdon townships.

According to the federal government, average download speeds of 100 megabits per second is needed for reliable internet service. Westmoreland's survey results found many communities below that threshold.

© 2023 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.