Lehigh County, Pa. conducts Internet audits in advance of funds | Panda Anku

(TNS) – Wayne Campbell recalled the importance of internet access as he visited his local butcher shop to buy meat.

“When [the cashier] went to run the credit card, I just kind of saw the look on her face … and she said, ‘We just lost the internet, I can’t run your credit card,'” he recalled.

Campbell, who is president of the Pennsylvania State Grange advocacy group in Mifflintown, said he hopes an influx of federal and state funds can support rural Internet access and prevent situations like the anecdote he describes. Lehigh County officials have the same hope.

The Federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program intends to spend more than $42 billion to expand high-speed Internet access across the country. It would allocate funds to the states and then to the counties.

Before any money can be allocated, Lehigh County general services director Rick Molchany said his job will be to audit municipalities for state residents’ Internet access and to report the county’s needs to the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority.

“We believe that accessibility to broadband connections is extremely important as we continue to evolve with distance learning opportunities, distance doctor appointments and potentially driverless vehicle opportunities,” Molchany said. “The backbone of all of this is broadband.”

The Federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program intends to spend more than $42 billion to expand high-speed Internet access across the country. It would allocate funds to the states and then to the counties.

Tina Smith, director of community and economic development for Northampton County, said the county is awaiting information on how the federal program’s US dollars will be distributed.

In May, Northampton County Council approved a $150,000 study using dollars from another federal fund — the American Rescue Plan Act for pandemic relief — to look for ways to improve broadband access, Smith said. The county will hire a consultant to continue studying needs, Smith said. She said about 15 percent of the county’s residents don’t have online access.

Districts are not directly responsible for managing broadband Internet access for households; that’s left to providers like Astound and Service Electric.

Joanne Guerriero, vice president of marketing and sales for Astound’s Pennsylvania market, said she agrees that affordability and accessibility have been issues for local communities and that Astound is open to any partnership or discussion with local communities to agree to these terms to enhance.

Molchany said there are two issues in Lehigh County that he wants to address: accessibility, but also equity.

In terms of accessibility, he said there are many areas with broadband internet access, although areas in rural parts of northern, southern and western Lehigh counties may be lacking. There are also areas where the internet service does not meet a minimum speed.

In terms of equity, the question often is whether a person can afford broadband access, which Molchany says is not the case across the county, including in urban settings like Allentown.

That issue was highlighted during the COVID pandemic, Molchany said, when some county students who didn’t have access were unable to fully participate in online learning.

“So we have two distinctly different problems that we’re observing and that we’re investigating and that we’re supporting by creating data,” Molchany said. “Our studies show that this is an economy-driven problem. If you have a household income of more than $75,000, there is about a 95% chance that you can afford high-speed Internet and have it available at home. On the other hand, if the household income is $20,000, it’s just a 50-50 perspective.”

Sascha Meinrath, Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State University, said Lehigh County has an average Internet speed of 89/15 megabits per second, exceeding the minimum speed of 25/3 megabits per second to be considered broadband.

However, because the Federal Communications Commission intends to update the minimum speed to 100/20 megabits per second, he said Lehigh County can no longer call its Internet access broadband.

“Of course those are rough numbers – and I would assume that the more urban areas of the county [such as Allentown] probably have far better connection speeds than the rural areas,” Meinrath said in an email.

Some of the questions for the state, Molchany said, include determining communities’ internet capabilities, their tariffs, their speeds, and what internet speed can be considered high-speed broadband.

Campbell, the president of Pennsylvania State Grange, cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach to broadband Internet deployment, noting that an area’s topography can mean that some types of Internet infrastructure, such as B. Cell towers, work better than others.

It’s not known when the county will be ready to report to the state, Molchany said. His goal is to find a partner over the next few months to support him with the examination process.

Molchany said it was too early to know how much money the county could get.

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