The West Deer supervisors are taking initial steps toward improving cellphone and internet connectivity in the township.
The board unanimously agreed to seek requests for proposals from engineering companies to study the township. Township Manager Dan Mator said the companies will determine where the problem areas are in getting broadband service and determine the viability of a system to provide it.
Mator said, after an engineering plan is selected, the township can approach the broadband providers and construction companies to get bids on implementing it.
Dan Cohen of the Cohen Law Group in Pittsburgh, which handles only municipal governments and specializes in broadband communications, was retained by the township to provide direction.
Cohen said he met, as a group, with the main broadband service providers, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as Crown Castle and Extenet, the two major contractors that physically build the wireless communications systems, to discuss the township's situation.
He said they singled out what they viewed as the biggest obstacle.
"A couple of the companies said the township's wireless ordinance is too restrictive for them," Cohen said.
According to Mator, the main problem with the ordinance is its approach to "micro cells," which he said are towers that are much smaller than the huge cellphone towers most people are familiar with. Mator said companies like to build and position more micro cells to strengthen and enhance the wireless signal.
"We don't allow micro cells in the township," Mator said.
However, that may soon change. Cohen said a member of his law firm is drawing up a new model broadband ordinance for the supervisors to consider that the companies may find less restrictive.
As for financing, Cohen said there will be federal money coming for broadband expansion projects under the $1.9 trillion infrastructure bill recently signed into law by President Biden.
Cohen said he has heard Pennsylvania is in line to receive $18 billion in those funds. He said rules aimed at preventing fraud, waste and corruption in applying for and using the money will be forthcoming from the U.S. Treasury Department, but they are a mystery for now.
"Frankly, it's too early to know what the rules will be from the Treasury since the bill was just signed," Cohen said.
Also, he said there is a bill in the Pennsylvania General Assembly to create an agency that will receive the federal dollars and grant applications from municipalities and then award the grants.
Mator believes that by making moves now to prepare for a broadband project, the township should be in a great position to apply for and receive some of that money when the state agency starts its work.
While the West Deer project seems perfect for the new infrastructure money, Cohen said there is another potential source to finance the project. The American Rescue Plan Act , the $1.9 trillion bill aimed at providing economic relief from the covid pandemic, includes money for broadband projects that still is available.
Although the rules set by the Treasury Department for using ARPA money are strict, he said that could be the easier path for the West Deer project to receive financing.
Supervisors Chairman Arlind Karpuzi seemed buoyed by the project's chances for success.
"I feel like the stars on this project aligned really well," he said.