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

(TNS) — Berks County has a digital divide, and county officials are willing to invest significant money to help close it.

The results of the feasibility study of the nationwide network were announced at the county operations meeting on Tuesday.

The study, conducted by independent contractor Lit Communities, looks at broadband access and affordability. It was sponsored by the state in partnership with the Berks Alliance, the United Way of Berks County and the Wyomissing Foundation.

The report shows there are unserved or underserved parts of Berk when it comes to broadband and a need to improve digital literacy, particularly among older residents.

Some of the main findings of the study are:

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

Justin Loose, the county’s chief information officer, said the findings in the study provide an important blueprint for what the county should focus on moving forward. It also gives state officials credibility when they compete for grant funding. The study was released shortly after the passage of the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill, a major investment in the nation’s broadband infrastructure aimed at closing the digital divide.

Pennsylvania received more than $100 million to improve broadband coverage in the state, including providing access to at least 394,000 Pennsylvanians who currently lack it, and offering a benefit to help struggling families get Internet service.

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

Those recommendations are:

  1. Allocate $5.7 million to infrastructure projects with the goal of leveraging this investment into more comprehensive grants, partnerships and other funding.
  2. Actively pursue grant or private funding to close broadband connectivity gaps.
  3. Provide $600,000 to fund two pilot digital literacy programs.
  4. Start a dialogue with neighboring countries to identify opportunities for cooperation.
  5. Continue dialogue with new and existing carriers to identify opportunities for collaboration to address the underserved and underserved.
  6. Collaborate with municipalities, authorities and other stakeholders to look at opportunities to build infrastructure, including right-of-way and ‘dig once’ opportunities.

While these recommendations won’t solve every broadband problem for every county resident, the measures should go a long way toward helping expand access to reliable and affordable Internet service, Loose said.

“We have an unprecedented amount of money from the federal and state government,” Loose told commissioners. “We know that this money will be competitive, so part of what colors our recommendations is to ensure that the county is in a position to act quickly and swiftly on incoming funding opportunities.”

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

County commissioners agreed with that assessment. And they said they believe putting the money aside now will help the county generate more revenue down the road.

Commissioners Kevin Barnhardt and Michael Rivera thanked members of the broadband task force for their hard work in developing a plan for the future. They said they see the county’s initial $6.3 million investment as something that will pay dividends for decades to come.

Commissioners Chairman Christian Leinbach said the county plays an important role in ensuring residents have what they need to live in the 21st century. He noted that throughout history, there have been many inventions that have evolved from utility to mainstream.

And he said the internet is one of them.

“In the last five years, the Internet has gone from useful to essential. “It’s important if you can’t make a doctor’s appointment without an email address or apply for a job without being online.”

Commissioners said they plan to approve a formal funding request at an upcoming council meeting.

©2022 The Reading Eagle, distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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