In anticipation of an influx of federal infrastructure funding, Northampton County is undertaking a study aimed at boosting access to broadband internet service.
County council this past week approved the study using $150,000 from another federal pot, the American Rescue Plan Act for coronavirus pandemic relief.
Council’s vote on approval Thursday night was 5-4, with council members John Brown, Ron Heckman, Kevin Lott, Kerry Myers and Tara Zrinski in support and council President Lori Vargo Heffner opposed along with council members John P. Goffredo, John Cusick and Thomas Giovanni.
In raising concerns, Vargo Heffner said she wanted to know more about the specific vision for the broadband study.
The county will bid out the study with an eye toward a bulk purchase of broadband service in areas both urban and rural where it’s needed, said Tina Smith, county director of community and economic development. The idea is not to offer free internet, as was done through a voucher system earlier during the coronavirus pandemic, she noted.
It’s estimated about 15% of the county lacks broadband access, Smith said.
Zrinski said the study gives the county a chance to be proactive before the money is potentially released that could pay for the broadband infrastructure.
“I’ve listened to everybody up here and reasons for yes, no, whatever,” Myers said. “And I just have one thought in my mind and it’s about education. And so many folks whether they’re in the city or in the country that don’t have broadband are going to be lacking in getting what they need. … And I want to make sure every child in Northampton County has access to broadband.”
The Biden administration earlier this month took the first steps to release $45 billion to ensure that every U.S. resident has access to high-speed internet by roughly 2028, inviting governors and other leaders on May 13 to start the application process.
The funding is part of the $65 billion for broadband in the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden signed into law last November. That bipartisan package is one of the policy achievements that the Democratic president is trying to sell to voters ahead of the midterm elections, though it’s unclear how much the message will resonate when much of the country is focused on high inflation, cultural differences and political identity.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is overseeing the distribution, and the Commerce Department recognizes that internet needs vary by state. The money could be used to lay fiber optic cable, build out Wi-Fi hotspots or even reduce monthly charges in places where price is the main challenge.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Kurt Bresswein may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.