A lot of Crawford County is underserved by broadband internet access, but the county is hoping to change that over the next few years.

Last week, Crawford County Board of Commissioners accepted the county planning office's long-term strategy to expand broadband, or high-speed, internet access to those areas in need of it.

High-speed broadband is defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speed of 3 Mbps.

Crawford County has only 75 percent of households having access to internet service that meets the FCC standard, according to a September 2020 study by the Pennsylvania General Assembly on the Delivery of High-Speed Broadband Services in Underserved Areas.

The county's long-term expansion plan would give broadband to 19 schools, three airports, and nine rural volunteer fire departments and emergency medical services units. An estimated 9,950 unserved and underserved households would get high-speed internet availability. Around 34 of the working population within the expansion areas hold jobs in industries that likely engage in telecommuting.

But, upgrading the underserved areas won't happen quickly or cheaply to build out areas of northwestern, southwestern and eastern portions of Crawford County. 

The preliminary overall cost — without any federal or state assistance — is around $26 million.

The county has been awarded a total of $16.4 million in federal economic recovery aid from the American Rescue Plan.

Federal guidelines on what would be approved projects aren't final yet, but if allowed, some of the county's allocation may be used, according to Eric Henry, chairman of the commissioners. That money potentially could leverage other federal or state funds to expand broadband in the county, he said.

More access to high-speed internet within certain areas of the county is needed, especially for schools and students, according to Henry.

"The pandemic showed us there is a real need for high-speed access," he said, referencing when schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and students attended school online. "A lot of students had trouble just getting access to the internet."

Fellow commissioners Francis Weiderspahn Jr. and Christopher Soff are in agreement about the expansion.

"It's not a quick fix," Soff said of the situation. "It's been a long time coming and will take time" to expand.

"Broadband in some areas needs improvement or even put in," Weiderspahn said as people discovered when they were working from home due to the pandemic.

Without the need for people to be in an actual office setting, an expansion of broadband may help attract people to Crawford County, he added.

Zach Norwood, the county's planning director, concurs.

"People are leaving urban areas to go into quite rural areas," he said. "We need to be competitive."

"It's the way of the modern world," Norwood said of high-speed internet. "It puts Crawford County in a position to be competitive in the 21st century."

About 32 percent of northwest Pennsylvania's workforce regularly telecommutes via the internet, according to a study by the Northwest Regional Planning and Development Commission.

The county's broadband plan would target three areas — Guys Mills/eastern Crawford County; Shenangos area in the southwestern county; and Conneaut Valley in the northwestern county — that need broadband internet.

Combined, those three areas cover 374 square miles of the county with an estimated total population of 26,112 representing 9,950 households or 28.9 percent of the households in the county.

Approximately 34.1 percent of the occupations held by workers residing within the three areas mentioned above are within the sectors of information; finance and insurance; real estate and rental and leasing; professional, scientific, technical services; management of companies and enterprises; education services; health care and social assistance. That's according to 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Jobs in those occupations also may be more vulnerable as those industries continue to move toward handling business via the internet, according to the bureau.

The largest and most costly area would be Guys Mills/eastern Crawford County. It covers 186 square miles with an estimated population of 13,454 people representing 6,336 households. The area ranges from Guys Mills east to Titusville and Canadohta Lake areas.

It would cost an estimated $13.2 million for 89 miles of fiber optic cable, 26 primary transmission towers and 28 secondary transmission sites.

The Shenangos area of southwestern Crawford County would cover 105 square miles in the Atlantic, Hartstown and Jamestown areas. It has an estimated population of 9,610 with 2,394 households.

The estimated cost there is $7.7 million for 43.7 miles of fiber optic cable, 17 primary transmission towers and 15 secondary transmission sites.

The Conneaut Valley area in northwest Crawford County would cover 83 square miles with an estimated population of 3,048 with1,220 households in and around the Conneautville and Springboro areas.

It would cost an estimated $5.7 million for 37.75 of fiber optic cable, 11 primary transmission towers and 15 secondary transmission sites. 

Keith Gushard can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at kgushard@meadvilletribune.com.

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