Amid middle mile expansion, Towanda Township to assess broadband needs

Progress Authority Economic Development Specialist Chris Brown updates the Towanda Township Supervisors about the dark fiber loops being installed throughout Bradford County to help facilitate better broadband and bring in different providers.

TOWANDA TOWNSHIP – Towanda Township Supervisors will be assessing the municipality’s broadband needs as Bradford County, through the Progress Authority, works on its second loop of fiber optic broadband infrastructure, which will include the township, as Claverack Rural Electric Cooperative finalizes plans for its own fiber infrastructure.

Last year, the county completed the first of three dark fiber loops connecting the Valley, Troy and Towanda areas, and is set to complete the second loop, which includes the township and extends to Canton, by the end of this year, while a third loop going through the Northeast Bradford and Wyalusing areas is expected to be completed in 18 months, according to Progress Authority Economic Development Specialist Chris Brown.

“The reason why a lot of areas are under-served as far as broadband coverage is because there is too many miles of road and too few people, and it’s hard for these internet service providers to come from the densely populated areas into the interlands because it isn’t cost-effective for them to do it,” Brown explained. “What we’re doing is putting the middle mile in.”

Instead of having to build the fiber optic network to connect these more remote areas, providers will be able to lease space on these lines to serve customers. By providing more of a window of opportunity for these providers, Brown said it increases competition, which will benefit customers who, in different parts of the county, have suffered from a lack of quality broadband and pricing for that service.

“It is not just an inconvenience anymore,” Brown continued. “Think about all of the things you have to do. When you scheduled your COVID vaccine. … School is impossible right now whenever they go to remote learning for students that live in less densely populated areas of the county. When there were stay-at-home orders, how could people work from home if they didn’t have internet connectivity?”

Although satellite internet service can help connect those in remote areas, Brown said the bandwidth can end up throttled once a customer reaches a certain data cap, or they have to pay additionally to maintain that bandwidth. In the case of one teacher at Towanda around the beginning of the pandemic, Brown said her satellite internet bill ended up being $800 one month and $900 the next month from holding remote lessons from her home.

“She had to go to Wysox to the McDonald’s that had free wi-fi to run her class from her car,” he said.

As Towanda Township Supervisors begin their assessment, Brown noted that wireless towers can be a cost effective way for townships to expand internet availability to residents, especially in areas where fiber will most likely never be run. These wireless towers must have a clear line of sight to provide internet service to homes.

“It will provide those homes not with the best speeds, but a lot better than what they are getting right now for the price point,” he said, while adding that Wilmot and Sheshequin townships are both planning for towers to carry signal from the county’s dark fiber.

Earlier in the pandemic, Brown said the Progress Authority had reached out to all school districts and found that 30% of students were unserved or underserved by broadband connectivity.

“Three years ago, when we first started this, the PUC thought there were no problems. … At that point in time we had a lot of deaf ears,” he explained. “And now it’s really affecting education, it’s affecting polling places, it’s affecting a lot of the ways townships and municipalities are doing business. Now it’s getting the state and federal attention it deserved 10 years ago.”

Once the new 911 center along Route 6 is brought into operation, Brown noted that the fiber will provide a fail safe for emergency communications throughout the county.

As the county moves forward with its infrastructure, Brown said they’ve been working hand-in-hand with Claverack.

The co-op is planning to create an affiliate to bring fiber connectivity to homes through parts of its service territory as well as some neighboring areas, using $3.16 million in annual support over 10 years, as awarded by the Federal Communications Commission through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction in November.

According to a previous release from the co-op, construction is expected to begin next year and must be completed within six years.

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