WASHINGTONVILLE — Representatives of virtually all who would benefit from improved rural internet service gathered Friday at the Montour Preserve Environmental Education Center.

The event, a formal introduction of expanded broadband service in outlying areas of five counties, included a ribbon cutting. A four-tower pilot program in partnership with Geisinger was built in 2019.

Congratulations came in the form of speeches by officials involved and a video sent by Sen. Robert Casey (D-Pa.). Danville-based DRIVE (Driving Real Innovation for a Vibrant Economy) and its leadership was given credit for bringing counties, federal officials and internet service providers together.

Jennifer Wakeman, DRIVE executive director, said the network was activated in parts nearly a year ago. Expanded service to all five counties via 16 towers was online in August.

Unlike a public network, users will need to sign up with an internet service provider. There will be a charge for the service, but proponents said it would likely be cheaper, more reliable and faster than internet via satellite or cable.

"It is a different kind of system than cable," Wakeman said. "Ultimately what comes on the outside of your house is a little box. That's the receiver (which) runs into the router in your house on a cable like any other hookup would go."

It was noted the "fixed wireless internet" network uses existing towers, poles and buildings to create a faster, more reliable conduit than others available in a rural region. The need to place transmitters in such strategic places was in part due to hills and mountains common in the region.

Bob Stoudt, Montour Area Recreation Commission (MARC) director, was among the presenters.

Stoudt noted the event was held at the Montour Preserve because internet service was more costly and inconvenient before the network was up. Interactive education programs will now be available on site, along with the other benefits of faster service.

Wakeman was optimistic that the improved service would be a boon to economic development in the area.

"We are on the cusp of something truly amazing in a lot of different respects," Wakeman said. "Between broadband internet, companies coming into the region, current companies growing and expanding."

Wakeman said revitalization efforts in downtown areas in  Shamokin, Berwick, Sunbury, Milton and others was evidence.

In introductory remarks, Wakeman noted the network would remain an evolving project. Rural users still in need of access to the service should contact providers so that if an extra transmitter is needed, it can be placed at an optimal spot.

Similarly, Wakeman said there was room for internet service providers in addition to the two currently available, skypacket.net and centrewisp.com.

County commitments of CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act and American Recovery Program (ARP) funds helped pay for the $3.2 million expansion of the pilot network.

Speakers also included Congressman Dan Meuser (R-Pa. 9), Fred Keller (R-Pa.12), Sen. John Gordner (R-27) and Trevor Finn (Montour County commissioner).

Staff writer Matt Farrand can be reached at 570-742-9671 and via email at matt@standard-journal.com.

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