The Schuylkill County Broadband Project was first mentioned about 3 years ago at this time.
And in the time, the amount of people who now have improved or at least some internet connection because of it stands at exactly zero.
Nada. Not one person or business has gotten improved internet service thanks to the Broadband Project we knew was a load of crap from the very beginning.
And to make matters worse, it doesn’t sound those in Schuylkill County who suffer from poor or no connectivity to high-speed internet will be getting that service any time soon.
Schuylkill County’s Broadband Project Moving at Dial-Up Speed
Let’s go back in time to one of the darkest periods in Schuylkill County history, the middle of 2020.
Try to recall the memories you’ve probably worked so hard to erase or at least memoryhole.
Businesses around the county were shut down by the government – and kept closed by your local elected officials until our state overlords said it was safe to come outside again – and students were struggling to adapt to attending school from home over the internet.
The problem for many of those students was a lack of a quality internet connection. It was a big problem and remains a big problem.
Businesses that could have made a go of it, despite the conditions, by adapting to an online model of some sort, also struggled with unreliable internet.
In the meantime, Schuylkill County Commissioners were sitting on a bundle of federal aid money that came via the CARES Act.
The Commissioners could have set money aside from that funding and gotten the most underserved (in terms of internet connectivity) communities in Schuylkill County connected in a matter of weeks or months.
It happened in at least 10 different counties across Pennsylvania. In Schuylkill County, it definitely didn’t happen. And it hasn’t happened since.
What Do You Call a Broadband Project That Isn’t About Internet At All?
Instead, the Commissioners did what they do best … they spent the money on themselves and County government.
But they did start something called the Broadband Project.
What, exactly, was the Broadband Project?
Well, the Broadband Project at that time planned to get as many people connected to better internet service as it has, zero. So, in that regard, you could view the Broadband Project as a resounding success.
What the Broadband Project actually was was a multi-million-dollar expansion of the County’s 9-1-1 service. Rather than getting people connected to high-speed internet, which each Commissioner admitted was a necessity, they voted to buy millions of dollars in equipement (they even floated a bond to pay for some of it) that would serve as a backup in the event the regular 9-1-1 system failed.
Yes, some of the equipment that was purchased to facilitate this 9-1-1 backup system – namely, towers – could be used in an actual broadband project but at that time and to this day, getting internet to the people that need it most would be something “down the line,” as one Commissioner put it.
It’s clear, we have not reached that particular point down the line.
More Money, Still No Internet …
The CARES Act funding came and went. It took a lot of wrestling with the County government just to get it to fund a grant program to help small businesses they forced to close during the intial stages of the COVID response in 2020.
And even then, only about 7% of the money from the CARES Act funding Schuylkill County received went to that grant program.
Of all that CARES Act money, no money went toward providing any locals with some or better internet access.
That didn’t change with the tens of millions of dollars the County government got from the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021. In fact, in the 2 years since the County first got its ARPA funds, talk of the so-called Broadband Project at the Courthouse died down (not that it was much of a hot topic in the first place) significantly.
Instead, the County used those millions of dollars to focus on its own needs, namely filling major gaps in the annual budgets. For 2023, the Courthouse used $10 million of ARPA funds to cover a shortfall.
… That’s No Internet for You, But Plenty of Internet for Them
As is the pattern with the Courthouse, while the down-the-line Broadband Project didn’t get off the ground as far as providing better internet for those needing it in Schuylkill County, that didn’t stop the government from hooking itself up with better service.
In fact, in February 2022, the Commissioners approved more than $300K in spending to upgrade the internet service and infrastructure at the Courthouse and other County offices.
And then earlier this year, the Commissioners approved a major upgrade of internet infrastructure at Schuylkill County Prison.
Of course, the Commissioners were under no obligation to spend any of this federal handout money on you, on better internet, or on anything but themselves and their needs.
In fact, that’s one thing Chairman Barron Hetherington repeatedly mentions. He did it again on Wednesday during the latest quarterly update on ARPA spending. The main goal of the ARPA funding, specifically, was to allow local governments the flexibility to continue operating as they were prior to the COVID response without raising property taxes.
And since Hetherington is seeking election in November, he’ll remind you every chance he gets that under his chairmanship, buoyed by money that isn’t his and won’t come around again, he hasn’t approved a tax increase.
Your internet is none of his or the Commissioners concern.
The Rotten Carrot Has Fallen Off the Stick
Of course, there is that little bit about them dangling the idea of a “down the line” broadband project to get the many people in Schuylkill County who struggle with poor internet service the help they need.
The Commissioners dangled that carrot in front of people 3 years ago and don’t appear any closer now than they did then at addressing the actual Broadband Project.
If you’re waiting for this project to actually come to fruition, we would bet you have a better chance of them lowering property taxes than you getting that internet.
So, Where is the Broadband Project Now? Where On the Line Are We?
It appears the Broadband Project first mentioned back in 2020 is now – in 2023 – in the hands of the Schuylkill Chamber of Commerce and the state and federal governments.
With the ARPA bill, the Dept. of Treasury split $10 billion to states to create infrastructure programs, including braodband expansion. In Pennsylvania, the Capital Projects Fund was bulked up with $279 million from that money.
This basically wiped the Commissioners’ hands clean of their initial promise 3 years ago. And it’s moved it on to levels of government and quasi-government that will surely speed things along, right?
The recent history on this topic will show you how this Broadband Project is progressing, as it were(n’t).
Back in May, according to a report from The Reading Eagle, Schuylkill Haven Borough Council heard from State Sen. Dave Argall, who indicated the state had a grant program for broadband funds and that the Chamber of Commerce’s Broadband Task Force was looking into how best to apply for that money.
In May, according to a report from The Shenandoah Sentinel, the North Schuylkill Council of Governments also heard about the Broadband Task Force and the state funding available.
So, that brings us to the Chamber’s Broadband Task Force. And according to its last communication on the topic in mid-June, “Over the past three months, the BTF has met with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Municipal leaders to coordinate efforts for grant funding to maximize Internet accessibility across Schuylkill County. The BTF has been closely involved in the grant application process for ISPs for the Capital Projects Fund Broadband Infrastructure Program Grants. Eligible projects for the grant include either line extension and development or large-scale regional infrastructure. The BTF is actively seeking out grant applicants to vet their grant proposals with the goal of providing letters of support.”
That, in a nutshell, tells you if you’ve been waiting for your local “leaders” to get you some or faster internet service for the last 3 years, your wait looks like it’s going to be quite a bit longer.
This is a problem that could have been addressed and solved about 3 years ago in very little time with just a little bit of effort.
It’s now turned into a multi-year, multi-government and organizational effort that’s no closer to improved internet service for people in Schuylkill County than it was 3 years ago.
NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect the specific source of the state funding for broadband grant funding.