Berks County, Pennsylvania, shares study, budget for broadband expansion

Berks County, Pennsylvania, shares study, budget for broadband expansion

(TNS) – There is a digital divide in Berks County and county officials are ready to invest a significant amount of money to help close it.

At a county operations meeting on Tuesday, the results of a countywide network feasibility study were unveiled.

The study, which was conducted by independent contractor Lit Communities, examines broadband access and availability. It was funded by the county in partnership with the Berks Alliance, United Way of Berks County and the Wyomissing Foundation.

The report shows that parts of Berks are unserved or underserved when it comes to high-speed internet and there is a need to increase digital literacy, especially among older residents.

Some of the main findings of the study include:

  • There are clear gaps in broadband infrastructure that directly impact residents, businesses and service organizations.
  • It is essential to improve the digital literacy of residents. It refers to people’s ability to navigate, evaluate and communicate information online.
  • There are opportunities to improve outreach to those who are unserved or underserved by working with willing partners.
  • People are generally satisfied with the speed and reliability of current Internet services, but are concerned about the lack of competition for Internet service providers in some communities.

Justin Loose, the county’s chief information officer, said the study’s findings provide an important blueprint for what needs the county should focus on moving forward. It also lends credibility to county officials as they compete for grants. The study was commissioned shortly after the passage of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill, which includes a massive investment in the nation’s broadband infrastructure that aims to bridge the digital divide. .

Pennsylvania has received more than $100 million to help provide statewide broadband coverage, including providing access to at least 394,000 Pennsylvanians who currently lack it and providing a benefit to help families in difficulty in affording Internet service.

Loose, who is chair of the Berks County Broadband Task Force, said the group took the study’s findings and compiled a list of recommendations they believe would best position the county to take advantage of these opportunities.

These recommendations are:

  1. Allocate $5.7 million to infrastructure projects with the goal of leveraging this investment into deeper grants, partnerships, and other funding.
  2. Actively seek grants or private funding to fill broadband connectivity gaps.
  3. Allocate $600,000 to fund two pilot digital literacy programs.
  4. Initiate a dialogue with neighboring counties to identify opportunities for collaboration.
  5. Continue dialogue with new operators and incumbents to identify opportunities for collaboration to meet the needs of the unserved and underserved.
  6. Collaborate with municipalities, authorities and other stakeholders to examine opportunities for infrastructure construction, including right of way and ‘dig it once’ opportunities.

Loose said while these recommendations may not solve every broadband problem for every county resident, these actions should go a long way toward expanding access to reliable and affordable internet service.

“We have an unprecedented amount of money coming from the federal government and the states,” Loose told the commissioners. “We know this money is going to be competitive, so part of what colors our recommendations is ensuring the county is able to move quickly and quickly to funding opportunities as they arise.”

Loose said most of these federal and state programs will require a 15% match.

County commissioners agreed with this assessment. And they said they believe putting money aside now will ensure the county gets a bigger return down the road.

Commissioners Kevin Barnhardt and Michael Rivera thanked members of the Broadband Task Force for their hard work in developing a plan for the future. They said they view the initial $6.3 million investment by the county as something that will eventually pay dividends in decades to come.

Commissioners Chairman Christian Leinbach said the county has a crucial role to play in ensuring its residents have what they need to live in the 21st century. He pointed out that throughout history, many inventions have gone from a beneficial service to an essential service.

And, he says, the Internet is one of them.

“Over the past five years, the internet has gone from beneficial to essential,” he said. “If you can’t schedule a doctor’s appointment without an email address or can’t apply for a job without going online, that’s essential.”

The commissioners said they plan to approve the formal funding request at an upcoming board meeting.

©2022 The Reading Eagle, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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