Cranberry Summit Provides Update on Broadband Efforts

“The lack of access to high-speed broadband is a genuine problem in many communities throughout our region,” Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission Vice Chairman and Armstrong County Commissioner Pat Fabian during a Regional Broadband & Connectivity Summit Thursday in Butler County.

SPC is a municipal planning organization representing Pittsburgh and the 10 counties surrounding the city, which seeks to work as one on the goals of transportation, planning and development, and information systems in the southwestern corner of the state.

“Without this, our region’s businesses, households and public institutions cannot prosper,” Fabian said to an audience gathered in Cranberry Township. “At SPC, we believe that by working together with private and public partners and across local, regional, state and federal levels, we can lead the effort to make our vision of affordable, equitable broadband access a reality in every part of southwestern Pennsylvania.”

During the summit, it was reported that most of the 10-county region are either underserved, with download speeds of less than 50 megabits per second (Mbps), or unserved, with download speeds of less than 25 Mbps.

SPC said download speeds between 50 and 99 Mbps are more common in Allegheny and Butler counties, but are found only in small areas throughout the remaining eight counties, including Armstrong and Indiana.

A series of panel discussions took up much of the day, including one regarding the “Pennsylvania Statewide Implementation Plan” and a summary of regional efforts, with Indiana County Office of Planning & Development Executive Director Byron G. Stauffer Jr. as the moderator.

Stauffer has been at the forefront of efforts to expand broadband in Indiana County, with one $2.3 million contract awarded so far and more to be brought soon to the county commissioners. The ICOPD director said the next phase of what eventually will be a $7 million network of broadband connections could be announced as soon as the next meeting of the county board on Wednesday.

Stauffer was joined by two representatives of state agencies, Brandon Carson, executive director of the Department of Community and Economic Development’s Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority, and Dr. Kyle Kopko, executive director of the General Assembly’s Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

Kopko said there are 19 counties regarded as urban, 48 as rural, with some rural areas in every county except Philadelphia and Delaware counties.

He said there has been stagnation in rural communities in Pennsylvania, with the population in those communities rising from 3.39 million to 2000 to 3.47 million in 2010, then dropping back to 3.38 million in 2020.

Meanwhile, Kopko said, the population of urban communities rose from 8.89 million in 2000 to 9.23 million in 2010 and then to 9.62 million in 2020.

“Broadband is going to play a pretty big role, I think, in helping to stave off some of these trends,” the Center for Rural Pennsylvania director said.

As of Feb. 1, according to data being gathered by the Federal Communications Commission, many area counties have met a 25/3 standard, or the ability to have 25 Mbps of download speed and three Mbps of upload speed.

However, Kopko said, “Greene County and Indiana County have some catching up to do,” at 75.2 percent and 78.5 percent coverage, respectively, for 25/3 internet.

As does Jefferson, Clarion and Clearfield, all outside the SPC area, respectively with 79.5 percent, 80.9 percent and 81.8 percent coverage.

Elsewhere in SPC, 25.3 coverage reaches 90.5 percent in Armstrong County, 94.8% in Washington County, 95.9 percent in Lawrence County, 96.3 percent in Beaver County, 98.1 percent in Butler County, 98.3 percent in Westmoreland County, 98.4 percent in Fayette County, and 99.9 percent in Allegheny County.

Also nearby outside SPC, Somerset County is at 83.7 percent and Cambria County is at 93.9 percent.

As for the next standard up, 100/20, or 100 Mbps download, 20 Mbps upload, there is coverage for instance for 78.7 percent of Indiana County, 88.1 percent of Armstrong County.

PBDA was created in 2021 through legislation signed by then-Gov. Tom Wolf as a bipartisan partnership, serving as a one-stop shop for all things broadband in Pennsylvania and managing more than $100 million in federal funds, working to close Pennsylvania’s digital divide.

Carson said the statewide plan aims to tackle four core challenges facing the ability of Pennsylvanians to access or adopt broadband:

  • Broadband service infrastructure and availability.
  • Digital equity and affordability.
  • Device and technology access.
  • Digital literacy and technical support.

“They will serve as a foundation as we develop a five-year action plan,” Carson said.

Carson said the authority has subcommittees dealing with Data & Mapping, Technical, Workforce & Supply Chain and Outreach & Education.

“They are meeting on a regular basis,” the PBDA director said.

“There is a lot of work to do, but as we’ve heard here today there are also a lot of opportunities and partnerships that all of us can pursue together to advance broadband equity in this region,” Fabian said. “SPC is committed to keeping southwestern Pennsylvania connected and moving forward and seizing on the numerous opportunities within the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and state programs.”