County tops state for worst internet access

March 29, 2018 GMT

New data from the federal government show that Somerset County has the most homes and businesses in the state — and third most in the country — that lack high-speed broadband internet access.

According to data released by the Federal Communications Commission, Somerset County has 5,511 homes or businesses that lack service and are eligible for an upcoming broadband expansion assistance auction. Somerset County is ranked third in the country, just behind Franklin County, Missouri, and Osceola County, Michigan.

The information was released as part of an upcoming FCC Connect America Fund Phase II auction that is scheduled for July and includes nearly $2 billion in federal funding.

Applications for the auction are due to the FCC by Friday.

“This is a unique opportunity for broadband providers to expand their service,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a press release.

“More important, this is a unique opportunity to bring digital opportunity to parts of rural America that have been bypassed by the broadband revolution. So I hope that all eligible providers will give this opportunity a hard look and choose to participate.”

Ahead of the auction, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced that his administration is making $35 million in state funds available to help internet providers secure the federal money. As part of the process, Wolf has created the Pennsylvania Office of Broadband Initiatives, which will be responsible for overseeing the expansion of internet access to all of Pennsylvania by 2022, according to a separate release.

“High-Speed Internet access is essential to growing our economy, expanding educational opportunities for our children, increasing access to modern healthcare, and improving the safety of our communities,” Wolf said in the release. “For Pennsylvania to succeed we must close the digital divide ensuring every citizen and business has the access it needs to connect to the ever-expanding digital world in which we live and work.”

Somerset County Commissioner John Vatavuk said he knew the governor had set aside money for broadband expansion, but he was not aware of the FCC auction. Vatavuk said he was not surprised to hear that Somerset County ranked so low for internet service.

“That is one of the biggest complaints we get as commissioners is the lack of broadband in the county,” he said.

Vatavuk said the county currently has two separate grants to help with broadband expansion at four business parks and at Somerset County Control.

He said that in recent years he had heard of Verizon and Salsgiver looking to expand services in the county, but that he did not know of any other companies locally pursuing broadband.

He said he understands that there are economic reasons why companies haven’t targeted Somerset County.

“It’s all about the money. If they can’t make enough money to make it profitable, they’re not going to do it and that’s been the problem,” he said. “The trouble with Somerset County is you have to go so far to get enough customers to make it worthwhile. You can’t get enough homes to make it profitable.

“Maybe with some of the grants now that’ll help us, hopefully.”