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Brooke, Hancock Counties Look to Improve Broadband Access

NEW CUMBERLAND – Hancock and Brooke counties are working to improve broadband access for residents.

The counties have partnered with the Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission and Magellan Advisors for a broadband feasibility study. The study is surveying residents to determine demand and identify unserved and underserved areas.

Hancock County commissioners Joe Barnabei and Paul Cowey said the survey is about reaching the underserved areas and developing the needed infrastructure. They acknowledged technology is an important part of life, and the county needs to plan for the future, which includes developing better internet connection.

The study is being funded through a Community Development Block Grant, which was granted by the state with funds allocated from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It is a planning grant designed for helping the community evaluate its broadband needs and begin the process of finding solutions.

The study is currently open and can be accessed online and in paper formats. It will be open until the end of the month and is collecting information on users expectations and demands. The online version has a speed test to determine the speed of the users Internet. The online version can be found at bhjmpc.org/brooke-and-hancock-broadband-survey/ or on the Hancock County Schools website. Paper copies are available in local libraries.

Once the study is complete, the goal is to develop a plan to implement new broadband networks and infrastructure. A new broadband network has the potential to enable better internet connection at lower costs and it provides a foundation for new economic development and job opportunities. The project’s team is focusing on the economic development side of broadband and how access to reliable technology benefits the community and economy.

Approximately 520 people have taken the online version, the paper copies have not yet been counted or reviewed. Mark Henne, a project contact at BHJ, said based on population, business and other stakeholders having between 800 and 1,000 participants is realistic. He added there is no magic number and having as many participants as possible will produce the best results.

Greg Laudeman, senior consultant at Magellan, said broadband is relatively inexpensive compared to other types of infrastructure.

He reported the project is a long way from cost projections, but a 2013 preliminary plan estimated a regional fiber-optic broadband network with connections to Pittsburgh and Wheeling with support for rural broadband would cost $6.5 million.

Magellan was hired as a consultant and the firm is analyzing the data collected by the study. The firm will then take the information collected and recommend options for broadband service.

Laudeman, said they will provide feasible and logical options for the region, but it will be up to the leadership to pick the broadband solution for the area. Laudeman added Magellan will advise and assist with making those options possible.

BHJ helps communicate the regions needs to government offices and coordinate projects designed to develop and improve the region, and is helping to plan the broadband project.

This study is following up on a 2013 study, and the goal for this study is to be more comprehensive. Laudeman reported they want to use the data collected in meaningful ways to improve the region’s Internet access.

Laudeman said the broadband planning project is looking 10-plus years in the future, and while it’s hard to imagine technology that far in advance if the community does not plan for advancements residents won’t be able to utilize them.

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