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Wi-Fi project to expand access at housing authority sites

Tom Riese
The Lackawanna County Housing Authority's development in Taylor is among the sites expected to see new Wi-Fi hot spots installed later this year. A representative from Icon Technologies said the company will install equipment at 12 public housing developments.

A more than half a million dollar Wi-Fi project is expected to increase internet access at public housing developments in Lackawanna County.

Last month, county commissioners approved a $620,000 community development block grant to improve internet connection at housing authority sites. Those involved in the project said locations across the county, from Moosic to Fell Twp., should see upgrades in about six months.

The county awarded the funds to Icon Technologies, a Carbondale-based IT and internet company, to complete the work. Alex Kelly, partner and VP of engineering at Icon, said 12 of the county’s developments should benefit from new Wi-Fi access points, commonly known as “hot spots.”

First, Kelly said Icon has to wait on licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), then the company can begin working with equipment.

“This isn’t an all at once type thing. These sites are going to come online one at a time,” Kelly said, noting that residents at some locations could possibly connect in the next few months.

“It’s essentially just a small round antenna… they’re going to be mounted on some high points on each of the facilities, probably near the administrative or common areas,” he added.

Mike Brown, chief information officer for Lackawanna County, said that the COVID-19 pandemic proved how important it is to have access to a dependable internet connection, and public housing developments for lower-income families and seniors are no exception.

The Lackawanna County Housing Authority provides accommodations for those who earn below a set income limit. A single person can earn no more than $33,350 per year to qualify for public housing, while the income for a family of four is capped at $47,600, according to the organization’s website. Also eligible are those who qualify for housing choice vouchers through federal assistance.

Remote school and work as well as telehealth appointments are among the reasons the hot spots are needed, according to Brown.

“Most school districts have kids learn remotely even on snow days, so hopefully they’ll have a better experience,” Kelly added.

Several of the county’s public housing developments are reserved for seniors. If this project runs as planned, Brown said, the county might look into internet access projects specifically for the senior population.

“Many… are shut in and do not have access to proper communication, not just to family members, but to doctors,” Brown said. “So we might be looking at expanding out from there, working with the Area Agency on Aging.”

Other NEPA counties looking to connect

Icon Technologies previously received a grant to increase broadband access in Wayne County. Kelly said that project was also instigated in part by the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for students to learn online.

“We concentrated on underserved or completely unserved rural areas,” Kelly said. “We ended up building four small relay towers and that provided us with the ability to greatly expand the coverage in these areas that just had nothing.”

In nearby Carbon County, Commissioner Chris Lukasevich said an internet connectivity and feasibility study was completed about a year ago.

“It’s the first time in Carbon County that we were able to get in on the granular level,” Lukasevich said. Though he said no new projects have been completed since the study, Lukasevich said the county now knows where it needs to improve broadband access, particularly in rural areas.

Tom Riese is a multimedia reporter and the local host for NPR's Morning Edition. He comes to NEPA by way of Philadelphia. He is a York County native who studied journalism at Temple University.
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