Commissioners in Union and Snyder counties are wisely designating a portion of federal funds they receive for coronavirus relief toward the expansion of high-speed internet services in the rural portions of each county.

Their initiatives and advocacy will be important factors in achieving the goal of installing the equipment necessary to increase the speed and capacity of online services, primarily in the western regions of each county. Access to reliable broadband internet service will benefit businesses, industries and families, especially those with children in school.

The Snyder County commissioners announced last month that they will allocate a portion of the county’s $3.64 million in CARES Act funding to expand broadband services, and just last week, Union County officials said they would do the same with a portion of their $4 million federal allocation.

COVID-19 relief funds can be used for broadband expansion because the virus shutdowns and quarantines have made internet services essential for distance learning and communications. The federal funds must be spent by the end of this year.

Union County Commissioner Stacy Richards said three studies have been performed on expanding access and internet speed. Options include the construction of new communications towers, installation of equipment on existing state-owned towers, or a mix of both. Internet providers could rent space on the towers to install their own equipment.

Union County Commission Chairman Preston Boop said the board will explore permission to add wireless broadband equipment to existing towers used by state police. He said the board would look to work with Snyder and Northumberland county officials to expand the reach of existing wireless systems.

As elected officials continue to work on the local level, two bills designed to promote broadband expansion in rural areas advance in the state Legislature.

House Bill 2348 would create the “Underserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program” to generate grants for non-governmental entities with the technical, managerial and financial expertise to design, build and operate high-speed internet in rural areas. Any entity qualifying for the grant would be required to invest 25 percent of the project costs from its own funds. House Bill 2438 would allow rural electric cooperatives to use their existing infrastructure to deploy fiber-optic lines to deliver broadband internet service, just as they did when they installed electrical lines across Pennsylvania’s rural landscapes nearly a century ago.

Both of those bills received unanimous approval in the state House and have moved on to the Senate.

Expansion of high-speed internet services into rural areas will be a multifaceted effort. Advocacy from all levels of government will be necessary to finally bring faster, reliable online access — the same services offered to those in populated regions for years — to those living, working or simply trying to complete their homework in rural regions of Pennsylvania.

NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Digital Editor Dave Hilliard.

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