The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

May 9, 2013

Cambria scraps Internet venture

Kathy Mellott

EBENSBURG — The Cambria County commissioners Thursday took a step to get out of the ill-fated venture of providing Internet service to rural areas by writing off a mountain of debt that has accumulated over the past five years.

Unanimous approval was given to a resolution to restructure a portion of the debt and change accounting practices for operation of the Cambria County Network.

The amounts involved will be determined with completion of the 2012 audit, Commissioner President Douglas Lengenfelder said.

“It becomes more or less an accounting issue. We’re straightening the books,” he said.

County technology director Steve Ettien said a number of changes in the county network are being made, all in an effort to simplify the operation and the accounting procedures.

Using outside providers, the county currently has about 600 rural residential and business customers with Internet access, a service which five years ago was difficult for some to get but now is widely available.

“Things have changed since 2008 with satellites and cellular companies. Technology has really changed,” Ettien said.

Closing down Cambria Connected could be completed in a matter of months, Ettien said.

The debt addressed Thursday will remove figures from the books for anticipated revenue that was never generated, officials said.

When the system was initiated in 2008, at a cost of $10 million, the bulk of the money – some $9.3 million – was spent on replacing an outdated 911 emergency communications system.

Initially, the 911 system upgrade cost was projected at $8 million, with the remainder of the money to go to Internet and Wi-Fi services.

With significantly less money than anticipated, the project was scaled back to serve fewer customers, meaning less revenue.

But the $600,000 in annual revenue the county hoped to realize from providing Internet and Wi-Fi was never scaled back despite the reality, Ettien said.

The revenue, as late as last year, was no more than $100,000, or a half-million dollars less than the county’s accounting system showed it should be annually.

“It never has been what they (former board of commissioners) thought it would be,” Lengenfelder said.

Other efforts are underway to remedy a design flaw in the wireless communications equipment that was the primary goal of the $10 million investment.

In mid-April, county officials announced that Tel Aviv-based Ceragon, the company that services the radios on Cambria’s communications tower network, is replacing the 18 receivers in the system at a cost of $120,000.

After years of complaints from fire and ambulance companies, especially in areas such as Beaverdale and Ashville, that the system did not work, it was determined that the design in the microwave towers allows water to seep in.

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