MERCER – County officials are pleading with utility companies to help provide broadband service to unserved areas in Mercer County.

The county commissioners are on a clock to use a $9.8 million COVID-19 relief grant and decided to use the bulk of it to aid small businesses. Officials plan to use a small share of the money 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 Act, must be used to help cope with the economic impacts of COVID-19. 

The money must be spent by Nov. 30 or is forfeited and will go to other counties in the commonwealth.

“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.”

Logan said Spectrum/Charter Communications refuses to share data on individual roads even though they have an exclusive right to offer service in the area.

But, by using personal acquaintances, commissioners were able to get senior staff from Armstrong Cable to begin talks.

“We had a productive call with Armstrong, which represents the eastern and northern side of the county ... I hope we can get some of this done,” Commissioner Matt McConnell said. “We still need the state and whoever controls the poles to be reasonable.”

Utility poles are owned by Penn Power Co and Verizon. In the past, those companies have consistently taken 90 days to reply to a request to hang a cable on their pole.

“But we don’t have time for delayed appointments and no responses,” Logan said. “Our youth need connection to their schoolwork. People working from home need to protect their jobs and health.”

McConnell said it would really move things along if Spectrum would respond to the county’s requests.

“Part of this is trying to spend the CARES money in a way to get internet connectivity for work or school at home,” McConnell said. “With such a short time period, it makes it frustrating for us all.”

The county expects a proposal from Armstrong next week.

The county plans to pay for part of the initial setup at the poles, with the cable company kicking in some startup money, since they will be collecting monthly subscription fees from the customers.

“It would be profitable for cable companies if we shared the capital costs,” Logan said. “There’s only so much you can do in the remaining 100 days of the year.”

Small business owners can also apply for a grant from the county, as the bulk of the COVID relief money will be used to aid the county’s small businesses.

County officials were given directives on how they can use the funding. It 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.

County officials are finding it frustrating as they try to set up broadband coverage for people in the county who do not have it.

“This is a big project that should already have been in the engineering phase,” Logan said. “But if we could do five roads in the county, we would demonstrate that it works and when another round of COVID funding comes around, you would have a model that proves there’s a way to do this.”