York County's broadband strategy: If you build it, they will come

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

School districts, emergency services and industrial hubs in York County were the priority of a feasibility study the county commissioned to look at how to provide broadband internet access to all residents.

The York County Board of Commissioners last week received the results of the study by  Lit Communities consulting firm, which recommended the county build seven major broadband network centers, or "rings," that will provide internet service to areas with the most need.

Silas Chamberlain, vice president of economic and community development for the York County Economic Alliance, said the goal of the project is to attract an internet service provider to use the infrastructure and bring its services to the area.

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"The idea is that by creating this backbone, you’re creating a platform that allows you to entice private investment into these areas where the upfront cost of installing these rings would be prohibitive," he said.

Henkels & McCoy employees, from left, Scott Stuck, Kolton Whitsel and Erwin Parson guide a tether as it pulls fiber optic cable during an installation along the York County Heritage Rail Trail in Codorus Township Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. The York County Board of Commissioners allocated $5 million from its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to pay for the the new broadband internet infrastructure. Bill Kalina photo

The preliminary report from Lit Communities recommends building the rings in the general areas of Dover Township, Conewago Township, Lower Windsor Township, North Hopewell Township, Jackson Township, Jefferson and Red Lion, based on a preliminary map presented at the commissioners' meeting.

Each ring can provide service for about 50,000 "demand points," or users, Chamberlain said, and the collection of rings would form a "middle mile" connectivity network.

York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler has spoken often over the past year about the need to "bridge the digital divide," especially with the recent dependence on teleworking and remote schooling because of COVID-19.

The county already has a head start on this because of the 16-mile broadband internet pilot project along the Heritage Rail Trail, which is nearly completed.

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The three rings singled out for prioritization in the feasibility study would be rings four, five and six, which are near Red Lion, North Hopewell Township and Jefferson.

These would provide internet service to the Red Lion Area School District and South Eastern School District, Chamberlain said.

There are no precise cost estimates yet because the county is in the early stages of the project and hasn't made any decisions or put the work out to bid, Chamberlain said, but if the project were to move forward, the cost would easily be in the range of tens of millions of dollars, he said.

That's where the next steps come in.

A temporary antenna is located at the Hanover Junction Railroad Station, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, to provide internet service through fiber optic cable that was installed along the York County Heritage Rail Trail. Bill Kalina photo

The county board approved the formation of a broadband internet task force to explore funding options and guide development of the project.

The task force includes York County Administrator Mark Derr, YCEA President and CEO Kevin Schreiber and several officials from the local education, medicine and energy sectors.

The feasibility study also recommended the county complete a public demand survey to figure out the current connection speeds across the county, the prices residents are paying for service and which areas have little to no internet access.

The demand survey would cost about $20,000 and would take five or six months to complete, Chamberlain said.

"This is really important data because right now, when you pull up the federal data on broadband in York County, it shows that we have coverage countywide," he said. "We know that’s not the case."

York County will need to have its own data about prices, availability and connection speeds to compete for federal grants to offset the cost of the project, he said.

The Board of Commissioners took no action on the demand survey Wednesday.