Berks County, Pa., Stock Study, Broadband Expansion Budget

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

The results of a county-wide network feasibility study were unveiled at a county operations meeting on Tuesday.

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

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

Some of the key findings of the study include:

  • There are glaring gaps in the broadband infrastructure that directly impact residents, businesses and service organisations.
  • There is a critical need to improve digital literacy among residents. It refers to people’s ability to navigate, evaluate and communicate information online.
  • There are opportunities to improve the outreach of those who are underserved or underserved by working with willing partners.
  • There is general satisfaction with the speed and reliability of current Internet services, but a concern about the lack of competition for Internet providers in some communities.

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

Pennsylvania Received More Than $100 Million To Help Provide Statewide Broadband Coverage, Including Access To At Least 394,000 Pennsylvanians Who Currently Deprive It And Providing A Benefit To Help Families struggling to afford internet service.

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

These recommendations are:

  1. Award $5.7 million to infrastructure projects with the intent to leverage this investment in grants, partnerships and other more in depth funding.
  2. Actively pursue grants or private funding to fill broadband connectivity gaps.
  3. Allocates $600,000 to fund two digital literacy pilot programs.
  4. Engage with neighboring counties to identify opportunities for collaboration.
  5. Continue dialogue with new and incumbent carriers to identify collaborative opportunities to address the underserved and underserved.
  6. Work with municipalities, authorities and other stakeholders to explore opportunities for infrastructure construction, including right-of-way and “dig once” opportunities.

Loose said that while these recommendations may not address every broadband problem for every county resident, these actions should go a long way in helping expand access to reliable and affordable Internet services.

“We have an unprecedented amount of money coming from the federal and state governments,” Loose told the commissioners. “We know this money will be competitive, so part of what’s coloring our recommendations is ensuring the county is in a position to move quickly and quickly on funding opportunities that are coming our way.”

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

County commissioners agreed with that assessment. And they said they believe setting the 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 setting a blueprint for the future. They said they view the county’s initial $6.3 million investment as something that will eventually pay dividends in the decades to come.

Commissioner Chair Christian Leinbach said the county has a crucial role to play in ensuring its residents have what they need to thrive in the 21st century. He pointed out that throughout history there have been many inventions that have gone from being a beneficial service to an essential service.

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

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

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

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