by Phil Yacuboski
Among what many would consider a slower pace of life along Pennsylvania’s northern tier, there’s also something else that is slowing down the pace of life – slow access to the internet.
“It does exist in places like Wellsboro and Mansfield, but getting direct access to businesses can often mean an additional expense,” said Keith Kuzio, a civil engineer and president and CEO of the Larson Design Group. “It could cost $10,000 or more to get an extension into an office where higher speeds are needed.”
Rural parts of Pennsylvania have limited high speed access to the internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. About 6% – or about 800,000 – are affected. The federal government defines broadband as 25 megabits per second for download speeds and three megabits per second for upload speeds. Areas close to the larger urban areas have quicker broadband speeds; rural areas do not.
Rural access to broadband is the top legislative priority of the Pennsylvania State Grange, said Vince Phillips, who works on behalf of the group on legislation in Harrisburg.
The Grange played a large part in ‘rural electrification’ in parts of the U.S. in the 1870s to make electricity available to those living in rural parts of the country.
“To us, rural broadband access is rural electrification of the 21st century,” said Phillips. “If you don’t have access to the internet or cell phones, how can you compete effectively? Those areas who don’t have it are at a competitive disadvantage. It’s a basic tool just like electric power was in the 1930s.”
Phillips said you could be leaving a number of people behind who might otherwise look elsewhere.
“You’re also missing the next generation folks who only think electronically,” he said.
Governor Tom Wolf, in his latest budget proposal, is calling for $4.5 billion for the rebuilding of Pennsylvania’s infrastructure. Part of the money would be used for rural broadband access; the rest would go for flooding improvements and fighting blight. The money would come from a severance tax on natural gas drilling, something that the state legislation has been uneasy about for nearly a decade.
“It’s not enough,” said Phillips.
“To grow a business in a rural community, you need to attract talent and it’s difficult to build a workforce of the future without access to broadband,” said Kuzio. “If they can’t get access to it as students, that’s going to challenge them in their development for technology-based careers.”
Some argue Pennsylvania (and other states) have lagged behind in putting money into broadband.
“We have under-invested in rural broadband throughout the country,” said Dr. Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer chair of telecommunications at Penn State University. “It just hasn’t been a priority.”
Meinrath, who believes the number of Pennsylvanians who do not have access to high speed internet is actually higher than already stated, said the way the federal government calculates the number is flawed.
“We have to invest in this the way we invest in primary education and roads,” said Meinrath. “That being said, we have to look at accountability like how are these services being effectively delivered and we need to be collecting more accurate information about how what the on-the-ground realities look like.”
Earlier this year, the Tri-County Rural Electric Co-Operative announced a six-year plan to bring high speed internet to counties in their service area. The $3.2 million in federal support as part of the Connect America Fund II Auction, will roll out fiber optic lines in north-central Pennsylvania to more than 16,000 customers in Bradford, Clinton, Lycoming and Tioga counties.
“Our goal is to bring broadband to rural communities just like we brought electricity to them back in the 1930s,” said Craig Eccher, Tri-County president and chief executive officer. “The entire initiative is a six-year project with 2,700 miles of fiber delivering high-speed internet to our members. We are eager to move forward with a project that has such transformational possibilities for our region.”
Construction will begin this year.
“The opportunity cost, meaning the cost of nondeployment of university broadband connectivity, is really the most harmful to the economies in areas of the state where they have the most mom and pop businesses and the places that aren’t serviced by the larger corporations,” said Meinrath. “And that’s a real problem.”