DANVILLE — A $3.2 million expansion of a highspeed internet network is ready for rural underserved residents of Montour, Northumberland, Snyder, Union and Columbia counties.

Federal, state and local officials joined the economic development council DRIVE (Driving Real Innovation for a Vibrant Economy) on Jan. 14 to announce the launch of fixed wireless broadband network that will provide high-speed internet access to rural areas across 1,750 square miles. The ribbon-cutting event was held at the Environmental Education Center at the Montour Preserve outside Danville.

“Today is the culmination of 18 months of work, but it’s really just the beginning,” said Jennifer Wakeman, executive director of DRIVE. “We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of how this wireless will be utilized. This is not a static system, it’s not all done today.

“It can grow, it can be expanded. It can support more users, it can support more ISPs (internet service providers), and it can meet so many more needs. I can’t wait to see where it is in five more years.”

The need has been there before but the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have put “10 exclamations points” on the issues as people work from home and students learn virtually in their houses, said state Sen. John Gordner, R-27.

“It is a start and we need to continue down this road to make sure that all of those who want these services can get the services once and for all,” said Gordner.

Sixty percent of rural or underserved residents are expected to receive service in the counties with room for expansion, said Wakeman.

CARES funding

DRIVE, created by Columbia and Montour counties in 2015, was able to launch the current network through a public-private partnership with Geisinger, which provided a $300,000 forgivable loan to fund the project.

In 2020, spurred by the availability of CARES Act funding for broadband development, Northumberland, Snyder, and Union counties became members of DRIVE. The five counties together provided $3.2 million dollars of CARES Act funds to build out a fixed base wireless network to reach the underserved and unserved areas in the region. Northumberland County used $1 million, Columbia County used $800,000, Union and Snyder counties used $600,000 each and Montour County used $200,000.

ConxxNE, a Jessup-based company specializing in network infrastructure deployment, was awarded the contract and began the design, engineering and construction of this carrier-grade network in the fall of 2020. The project, completed last summer, added an additional 16 tower sites in targeted rural and underserved areas across the five counties.

The expansion was a collaborative effort by DRIVE, its member counties, local elected officials, private business and residents.

The network utilizes a wide variety of vertical assets from county-owned 911 towers to business rooftops to privately-owned farm silos and monopoles placed on private land.

Two internet service providers — SkyPacket Networks and Centre WISP — are now serving customers across the region using this infrastructure. The network is designed to allow future expansion to fill in coverage gaps and respond to the ever-increasing demand for broadband access.

Wakeman said customers are already signing up for the service and more are welcome to sign up. The providers will do a site assessment to determine whether a signal can be received at that location and provide a cost estimate for installing the equipment.

Officials speak

The event had several dignitaries who provided comments, including U.S. Reps. Fred Keller, R-12, and Dan Meuser (R-9), Montour Area Recreation Commissioner Director Bob Stoudt and Montour County Commissioner and DRIVE Board Member Trevor Finn. It also included a video message from U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.

Meuser and Keller praised DRIVE and collaborators for being a model on how federal and state money should be used. The COVID-19 pandemic, they said, brought to light the need for internet access for students, health care workers, businesses and employees working from home in rural areas.

“May this be the seed that people take and plant in their communities, to make sure we deliver for all of America what is rightfully something they should expect to have every day,” said Keller. “That is good, public service and a good investment.”

Finn: Hard work starts

Finn said the “unique topography of rolling hills and valleys” provided challenges for microwave technology.

“We continue to seek out grants to add vertical assets to our networks while finding solutions to final hookups,” he said.

Finn said the hard work now begins.

“We now have the potential for thousands of customers on our network,” said Finn. “However, even though it seems like we were sprinting to the finish line to get this thing done — and we were — this is America. We have merely tied our running shoes.”

Finn said there is room on the network for more customers and ISPs.

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