Westmoreland broadband survey, search for service, speed | Panda Anku

Ed Egloff still cannot understand why, after 25 years of internet service, he was cut off from the internet at his body shop in Derry Township and near his home.

“You must do something. That’s terrible,” Egloff said.

Its properties are a few miles north of Route 22 near New Alexandria, in an area that officials say appears both unserved and underserved by broadband Internet service.

Egloff is not alone, according to Westmoreland officials, who say preliminary reports from the federal government indicate as many as 3,600 county residents lack access to high-speed Internet service. Thousands more have service that falls well short of federal guidelines for adequate service.

A comprehensive study began in July to determine broadband needs in Westmoreland County.

District commissioners this summer awarded Michael Baker International a $659,000 contract to conduct the first phase of a broadband needs assessment study.

Two two-man investigation teams have been working over the past month, traveling to areas across the county believed to be without broadband coverage. A crew operating north of Route 22 has visited the townships of Murrysville and Derry, Washington and Upper Burrell and is expected to head east towards the townships of Ligonier and Donegal.

A second team is investigating areas in the southern half of Westmoreland County, most recently in Mt Pleasant.

Jeremy Jurick, director of national broadband services at Michael Baker International, said about half of the survey work at Westmoreland was complete, with more than 1,800 sites visited in the first four weeks of the effort.

On a sunny morning last week, Kevin Baker and Joe Hendrix drove the gravel roads of rural Derry in search of areas thought to have little to no access to broadband. They left flyers on the doors of homes asking residents to take an online survey to determine internet needs and record service speeds. Information on the study can be found at westmorelandbroadband.org.

Officials want at least 3,000 residents to take part in the poll but are hoping for more.

Out in the field, Baker and Hendrix examined utility poles and cellular network readings to determine connectivity rates. Surveyors don’t enter houses.

They stop and speak to residents when they see them outside, or are greeted by hanging doorknobs.

“Some people think we’re selling the Internet,” Baker said. “A quarter of the people we see are excited and say, ‘We’re waiting for you.’ ”

Egloff has also been waiting.

He said he ran his auto repair and salvage business on DSL service for 25 years. While slow and frustrating at times, it allowed Egloff to have enough service to function. That all changed a few years ago when its ISP shut down service after a payment issue that was resolved almost immediately. The company has refused to restore its internet, Egloff said.

He was forced to subscribe to an expensive and slow satellite internet provider.

“I need 20 minutes in the morning to get ahead. I hope to God there’s something you can do,” Egloff told the survey team.

While most broadband services are provided over fiber optic cable, in some cases they can also be provided over cellular services.

Broadband customers operating at data rates of 100 megabits per second are considered standard services by federal standards. Residents with lower internet speeds are considered underserved.

“It was an eye-opener for a lot of people,” said Corey Block, planner with the Westmoreland County Development Office.

Driving down the back roads in Derry’s farming communities, surveyors found evidence of little or no broadband service.

“The county sees this as an economic development issue; it affects industry and agriculture,” Block said.

Jurick said Michael Baker is expected to complete his survey in late September or early October and provide district leaders with a report containing cost estimates and recommendations for a second phase of connectivity improvements.

Block said county officials could approve two small projects this fall to install fiber-optic cable to connect several hundred underserved residents to broadband networks.

Funding for these projects needs to be completed, but the county could apply for additional grants or use some of its $105 million it received from the American Rescue Plan, she said.

“We want to show people that we mean business,” said Block.

Rich Cholodofsky is a contributor to the Tribune-Review. You can contact Rich via email at rcholodofsky@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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