Washington County, Pennsylvania, Broadband Best Practice Case Study 

Leveraging Multiple Funding Sources to Approach Universal, Fast, Affordable, Reliable Broadband 

North Central Appalachian coal country, spanning West Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky, has too many places without broadband or with only low speed, expensive broadband (the maps in this October 2020 ReImagine Appalachia white paper show that rural counties in these four states have the slowest speeds). Yet fast, affordable, reliable broadband has become an essential utility, critical to education, business, families, and farms – and essential also to the modernized electric grid required to support the transition to renewable energy, electric vehicles, and grid management for energy efficiency.  

Today, spotty, expensive broadband threatens the future of rural communities and regions. It can accelerate population loss and a downward spiral. Accessible, affordable, high spread broadband, by contrast, can underpin community renewal, especially in a post-COVID era in which telecommuting from long distances allows more businesses and professionals to serve distant customers from bucolic places. 

Poor or no broadband in rural areas has persisted despite past federal funding attempted to address this issue. Outdated and inaccurate Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maps that claim locations have broadband when they do not, and federal eligibility rules that deny funding to places where incumbent providers have local monopolies and partially serve areas with expensive, slow options, have contributed to the persistence of inadequate rural broadband.  

Now there is a new influx of federal funding for broadband, $65 billion from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (aka the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law). This prompts the question: will distribution of this funding come closer to achieving the ideal of universal, high speed, affordable, and reliable broadband?  

Over the past two years, Washington County, Pennsylvania, has pursued a best-practice approach to upgrading rural broadband. Although it is early in the county’s broadband build out, prospects seem good for enabling virtually the entire county to achieve access to high-speed broadband within just a few years. This best-practice case study highlights the key steps in the Washington County approach. We also extract lessons for state broadband authorities. One recommendation for Pennsylvania’s broadband authority: distribute $200 million in funding through Pennsylvania’s Capital Projects Fund for Broadband Infrastructure – for which proposals are now due August 9 – in two rounds, with funding held back from the first round providing additional time for proposers to emulate best practices such as those pursued in Washington County. 

Tap Local Resources for Planning and Matching Funds 

One key step in Washington County’s effort was to set aside $32 million in resources from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed in March 2021, for a county broadband initiative housed within the Washington County Authority, founded in 1951. This county broadband initiative provided funding for mapping, consulting, and local match. For example, when the Pennsylvania’s Capital Projects Fund required a 25% local match, Washington County had the required local dollars readily available.  

Read the case study here.