The federal government is helping expand internet service. The first step is to figure out where and how it falls short in the Lehigh Valley.


Wayne Campbell remembered was reminded how important internet access is when he visited his local butcher shop to buy meat.

“When [the cashier] went to run the credit card, I just kind of saw the expression go on her face … and she said, ‘We just lost internet, I can’t run your credit card,’ ” he recalled.

Campbell, who is president of the advocacy organization Pennsylvania State Grange in Mifflintown, said he hopes an influx of federal and state funding can help rural internet access and prevent situations like the anecdote he described. Lehigh County officials have the same hope.

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The federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program intends to use more than $42 billion to expand high-speed internet access across the country. It would allocate the funds to the states and, subsequently, counties.

Before any money can be allocated, Lehigh County Director of General Services Rick Molchany said, his task will be to audit municipalities for the state of residents’ internet access and report the county’s needs to the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority.

“We believe that broadband accessibility is extremely important as we move further along with remote education opportunities, remote medical appointment opportunities, with potentially driverless vehicle opportunities,” Molchany said. “The backbone of all of that is broadband.”

The federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program intends to use more than $42 billion to expand high-speed internet access across the country. It would allocate the funds to the states and, subsequently, to the counties.

Tina Smith, Northampton County’s director of community and economic development, said the county is awaiting information on how the federal program dollars will be distributed.

In May, Northampton County Council approved a $150,000 study with dollars from another federal pot — the American Rescue Plan Act for pandemic relief — to look at ways to boost broadband access, Smith said. The county will hire a consultant to proceed with studying the needs, Smith said. She said about 15% percent of county residents lacks online access.

Counties are not directly responsible for managing broadband internet access for households; that is left for providers such as Astound and Service Electric.

Joanne Guerriero, vice president of marketing and sales for the Pennsylvania market of Astound, said she agreed that affordability and accessibility have been issues for local communities, and that Astound would be open to any partnership or discussions with local municipalities to improve those conditions.

Molchany said there are two issues in Lehigh County he’d like to address: accessibility, but also equity.

Regarding accessibility, he said there are many areas with broadband internet access, though areas in rural parts of northern, southern and western Lehigh County may be lacking. There are also areas where the internet service doesn’t meet a minimum speed.

In terms of equity, the issue is often whether a person can afford broadband access, which Molchany said is not the case all over the county, including in urban settings such as Allentown.

This issue was highlighted during the COVID pandemic, Molchany said, when some students in the county who didn’t have access couldn’t fully participate in online learning.

“So we have two distinctly different issues that we’re observing and we’re studying and we’re creating data to support,” Molchany said. “Our studies show that it’s an economic-driven issue. If you have greater than a $75,000 household income, there’s about a 95% chance you have the ability to afford and provide to your home high-speed internet. On the other side, if the household income is $20,000, it’s only a 50-50 perspective.”

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Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State University, said Lehigh County has a median internet speed of 89/15 megabits per second, exceeding the minimum speed to be considered broadband of 25/3 megabits per second.

However, with the Federal Communications Commission looking to update the minimum speed to 100/20 megabits per second, he said Lehigh County would no longer be able to call its internet access broadband.

“These are, of course, rough metrics — and I would anticipate that the more urban areas of the county [such as Allentown] likely have far better connectivity speeds than the rural areas,” Meinrath said in an email.

Some of the questions for the state, Molchany said, include getting a measure of the internet capabilities of municipalities, their rates, their speeds and what internet speed can be considered high-speed broadband.

Campbell, the Pennsylvania State Grange president, cautioned against a “one size fits all” solution for providing broadband internet, noting that an area’s topography can mean some types of internet infrastructure, such as cell towers, work better than others.

It’s unknown when the county will be ready to report to the state, Molchany said. His goal is to find a partner to assist with the audit process in the next couple of months.

Molchany said it’s too early to know how much money the county could get.

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The federal government is helping expand internet service. The first step is to figure out where and how it falls short in the Lehigh Valley.

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