County focused on development in 2020

JOHN ZAVINSKI | Herald fileThe Mercer County courthouse, seat of the county government.

MERCER – Rural residents of northcentral Mercer County will have access to internet broadband, funded by a portion of the county’s COVID-19 relief grant.

On Thursday, commissioners unanimously approved spending $573,265.83 to purchase hardware needed to provide internet broadband service between Sandy Lake and Greenville.

The county commissioners are subject to a deadline for using a $9.8 million COVID-19 relief grant and have already spent nearly $2 million of the money. The bulk of the money is earmarked to aid small businesses, but a small portion has been set aside to set up broadband services to unserved or underserved areas in the county.

The one-time grant of $9,881,956.45, under the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, must be used to help cope with the economic impacts of COVID-19. The county must use the funds by Nov. 30 or the state will reclaim the unspent portion and distribute it to other counties.

County commissioner Scott Boyd has been championing a project to use COVID-19 relief money for improving broadband service in rural sections of Mercer county. ISP Supplies, of College Station, Texas, will be contracted to erect hardware necessary to serve 220 to 355 households.

“Things are moving so quickly expanding broadband capabilities in the county,” Boyd said. “We’re looking for creative ways to deliver internet wirelessly.”

ISP Supplies has been providing expanded broadband service in Ohio and are willing to make it available in Mercer County. The company is for-profit and services will require customers to pay fees.

But setting up a wireless network in sparsely populated northcentral Mercer County would have been cost-prohibitive without the county’s COVID-19 relief money, commissioners said.

County commissioner Matt McConnell said rural broadband is among the federally approved uses for the CARES money.

“We have bloodied our heads knocking them against the wall trying to talk with vendors,” McConnell said.

County officials had been pleading with utility companies to help provide the broadband service, which would allow more children to do school from home and parents to work remotely.

“Expanding broadband service has been a target effort of this board since they were first elected,” said John Logan, the county’s fiscal administrator. “Now that Mercer County has COVID relief money to use, the barrier to broadband seems to be the providers themselves.”

McConnell is in his third term on the board of commissioners. Boyd and Tim McGonigle are in their second terms.

Logan said Spectrum/Charter Communications refuses to share data on service to residents on individual roads even though it has an exclusive right to offer service in the area. Talks with Armstrong Cable did not appear to yield an agreement.

Under federal guidelines, the money can be used for direct COVID-19 response, assisting businesses and municipalities, providing behavioral health and substance-use disorder services, funding nonprofit assistance programs or improving broadband internet coverage to unserved or underserved areas.

McConnell said this initiative has required out-of-the-box thinking. He said it includes using microwave technology that allows service to go beyond line-of-sight. The project will require the installation of antennas.

The expansion of broadband service will enable people to more easily work and attend school from home, McConnell said.

“Some of the people in these areas are very desperate for services. Some people think it’s not safe for their children to go to school,” he said. “We’ve heard those concerns and we’re actively working on it.”

McConnell said the services would cover parts of northern Mercer County from Sandy Lake to Greenville, but not the whole area.

“Who is getting the service?” McConnell said. “We can’t make promises. I’m not going to give you a map.”

He said only that the areas are either unserved or underserved for broadband coverage.

“This isn’t going to be 100 percent coverage but it’s a start,” Boyd said.

Follow Melissa Klaric on Twitter and Facebook @HeraldKlaric, email: mklaric@sharonherald.com