More than an inconvenience, Pa.’s broadband crisis affects education, medicine and more

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Pennsylvania Influencer Project

Rural Pennsylvania faces a shortage of broadband access, and the digital divide affects education, health care, property values and quality of life in our communities. The Pennsylvania Influencer Project, a multi-part series from the Centre Daily Times and its parent company McClatchy, examines the challenges and potential solutions to the problem.

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For those in rural Pennsylvania without access to broadband internet connections, the litany of complaints is endless. Schoolkids can’t do their homework assignments. Families can’t stream television shows. Relatives don’t want to visit.

And that’s only the social component. Property prices don’t appreciate as fast as in areas where broadband is available, according to real estate agents. Rural residents can’t easily start online businesses or telecommute to better jobs in towns and cities. They can’t seek online training at home to enhance job skills.

About 6% of the state’s population — around 800,000 people — is reported to experience these shortfalls, according to the Federal Communications Commission. But the number is likely much greater due to imprecise reporting by providers under government standards, technology policy expert and Penn State professor Sascha Meinrath said. He put the true number of Pennsylvanians without broadband at probably closer to 11 million, or a “supermajority” of the state’s population.

The FCC defines broadband as 25 megabits per second for download speeds and 3 megabits per second for upload speeds, while the state of Pennsylvania says broadband is 1.5 Mbps per second and 128 kilobits per second, respectively.

While speeds are generally faster in urban areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, people in rural areas of central and northcentral Pennsylvania find that doing simple tasks like typing in web applications, downloading video or large files and streaming television shows can be next to impossible.

Deneen Keller, a teacher with the Penns Valley Area School District in rural Spring Mills, said only one person at a time can use her Verizon DSL internet at her home in the Seven Mountains. Her husband, a consultant running his own business, often has to use aerial imaging through Google Earth, but he can’t do it at home.

“It would take literally overnight if not more just to download (Google Earth),” she said.

Keller said the only other options she would have for internet are satellite or a cellular data hotspot — two things that are more costly than her current service and similarly unreliable, she said. Currently Keller and her husband pay $50 a month for speeds that don’t meet the federal or state definition of broadband. And Keller said she would pay more if it meant she had better service.

Spring Mills resident Doug Dodson points to numerous latency tests showing where his family’s internet connection drops out for hours at a time. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Some rural residents also believe their areas are being passed over for economic opportunities because they lack reliable broadband connectivity.

“To me, Pennsylvania is what I consider to be a through state,” said Doug Dodson, who works in information technology at Penn State and lives in Spring Mills. “... People drive through Pennsylvania to get to these high-tech destinations” in New York and Virginia.

But Dodson, who wants Pennsylvania to be “the Keystone state for technology,” said that will happen only if the Pennsylvania Legislature gets serious about bringing broadband to all areas of the state and if the state’s many municipalities can provide that service.

Telemedicine faces barriers in rural areas where need is high

Others said broadband, were it available, would broaden the health care offered in rural areas.

“You’ve got a lot of rural clinics that can’t access high-res(olution) photos … When you don’t have connectivity, you don’t have access to all of the attendant online resources, the ability to share your MRI with a second set of eyes to get a second opinion on something,” Meinrath said.

Cellphone and 911 towers can be seen in the distance on Centre Hall Mountain over the farmland of Madisonburg. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Doctors and other health care workers in rural communities also feel the digital shortfall.

Dr. Robert Gillio, the medical director for population health at J.C. Blair Hospital in Huntingdon, and his wife, who taught online nutrition classes at Penn State, faced obstacles doing simple tasks for work, he said.

“There were times I wanted to get online and connect with someone using technology, and I ended up getting in my car and driving to the Sheetz or the hospital and use their internet,” he said. “As the caregiver on a snowy day with a foot of snow and I wanted to check in on somebody or they wanted to reach me from the hospital, it was impossible.”

Unreliable broadband access also has made it difficult to implement some of the programs Gillio’s been working on, including one where caregivers visit patients with chronic illnesses or complex medical conditions. In-home checks can include testing blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate or oxygen levels, and transmitting that information back via an iPad or cellphone to a primary care doctor or specialist.

That service can be a matter of life or death for some patients, Gillio said.

“For patients that need close monitoring, they’ll end up critical in the ER or dead, opposed to slight modifications with a phone call or a Skype call,” Gillio said. “Your patients at risk will die. Blood sugar could be 450 and no one would know it. And they’ll be dead by morning.”

Experts like Peter Strecker, the regional program coordinator for telehealth at the UPMC Susquehanna health system, say health care costs are too high, and telemedicine offers cost savings, especially in rural areas where clinics and hospitals have closed.

Tim Schoener, vice president and chief information officer for UPMC Susquehanna in Williamsport, said offering telemedicine is “critical” to UPMC’s overall success.

But for patients without high-speed internet, access is limited for the more than 400 telemedicine uses employed by UPMC.

That limit was clear when Schoener and Strecker had a home visit with a wheelchair-bound patient in Linden, two miles outside Williamsport.

The patient needed to connect via video conference with his specialist in Pittsburgh ahead of upcoming surgery, but was unable to with his unreliable DSL connection, Schoener and Strecker said. They were able to use the Verizon 4G hotspot on Schoener’s phone to connect and make the meeting happen, but that often isn’t cheap.

“With regional bandwidth, one location can be perfect, and the next not,” Strecker said. “We have physicians that still have beepers because they don’t have cell coverage.”

Are rural students being left behind?

A lack of broadband means challenges for rural students, too. They scramble to finish homework during school so they don’t have to take it home where slow speeds make some assignments impossible. Rural students nationally are less likely to attend college than their urban and suburban peers, according to data from the National Center of Education Statistics.

Students in Penns Valley feel the effects deeply.

“If I were to be doing homework and my mom needed to be on it for like a conference call for her work, then I would have to get off because it’s so slow,” said Lanna Rummel, a junior at Penns Valley Area High School who lives the Seven Mountains area.

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Online learning benefits teenagers who need a boost from tutoring sites like Khan Academy, do-it-yourselfers who need instruction, technicians and mechanics who need a visual walk-through of procedures, and others, said John Windhausen, executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. And as colleges move toward offering online classes, many students rely on an internet connection for basic instruction and face-to-face time with professors.

For instructional videos and live-streamed classes, a steady internet connection is essential.

“If you’ve got a distance learning lecture that’s all fuzzy and choppy, then people stop watching,” said Windhausen.

Keller sees how a lack of home broadband would affect inquisitive kids who want enrichment activities, she said.

“I do feel that there is definitely an advantage if you’ve got a student who’s very inquisitive and wants to know more. They’re definitely going to probably spend more time on the internet, researching the things that interest them, or resources that might support their learning,” she said.

Rural areas lag in economic development

An absence of broadband has helped propel rural flight in the Coudersport area, said Wanda Shirk, a retired English teacher in that region. School enrollment in her area dropped by half, she said.

“Everything is moving online. Everyone has to apply for jobs online now. You can’t do it with pen and paper anymore,” Windhausen said. “You have to apply for Social Security and Medicare online.”

Others concur that failing to have internet connectivity can kill job prospects.

“Telling a potential employer that you don’t have a phone, that you don’t have internet, that you don’t have a way for them to get in touch with you is the biggest disincentive for an employer,” said Mignon Clyburn, who served nine years as an FCC commissioner before leaving in 2018.

Business owners shun any idea of expanding to a community with no reliable internet service, said Brad Smith, president of Microsoft. Nineteen percent of Americans live in rural communities, but only 6 percent of science and technology jobs are located in rural counties, he said at a forum in December.

Jen Snyder, who owned a farming business in Penns Valley with her husband Tom, said they struggled to upload and download documents quickly, especially when it came to payroll. The couple repeatedly asked Verizon to extend DSL service to their area of Brush Valley Road, but it stopped just miles away at the Millheim Narrows, they said.

Jen Snyder talks about the difficulties her family has with the internet at their Madisonburg home on March 19. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

The business closed in 2009, which Jen Snyder attributed to declines in the agricultural economy. But with businesses becoming more reliant on technology, she said, the lack of broadband in Penns Valley could hurt new business development. And as rural banks close their doors, money management is increasingly moving online, according to a 2018 Wall Street Journal report.

“Rural Americans have not yet recovered from the job loss that began with the 2007 recession,” said Barry Denk, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. “... If rural America lags in broadband connectivity, then that makes it a less viable and attractive place to do business.”

There are 4 percent fewer jobs now compared to before the recession, according to a report from the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, he said. Broadband and technology could be used to facilitate job growth by connecting products and services to markets.

Cindy Boardman, an agent at Pine Creek Real Estate in Galeton, said potential buyers have one thing at the top of their minds when they inquire about rural property.

“That’s one of the first questions they ask: ‘Do we have access to high-speed internet from this property?’ ” Boardman said.

Experts agree that broadband boosts property prices from two to three percentage points up to double digits.

“You can have adjacent communities, one with no access or low access, one underserved or unserved, and then one with adequate service, and I think the one with adequate service is seeing home prices upward anywhere between 10 and 20 percent higher,” said Paul Breakman, a senior director at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a trade group headquartered in Virginia.

Boardman said she believes many of the hunting camps that dot the forested lands of north central Pennsylvania would see improvements once broadband arrives. Rural homeowners also might upgrade their properties.

“You can put up home security systems with cameras and extra lighting,” Boardman said.

‘Disparity’ between rural and urban coverage is ‘frustrating’

Some rural Pennsylvanians feel jilted by providers and the government from the lack of broadband providers and the quality of service in their area.

“I don’t expect, you know, the government ... to just blanket provide internet service,” said Dodson, of Spring Mills. “But the disparity between what the urban areas have available to them and what’s available out here is incredibly frustrating.”

Doug Dodson, or Spring Mills, shows a latency test he was running on their internet connection before it cut out for hours. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

The Snyders, who live in the small town of Madisonburg, use a Verizon Jetpack — a cellular data hotspot — as their household internet access.

“In the summertime it doesn’t work well anywhere because there’s so many more leaves on the trees,” said Tom Snyder, who works for an Amish-owned business in Penns Valley.

From their position in the valley, the Snyders can see the tower on Centre Hall Mountain — just 10 miles away — that provides wireless broadband coverage to Centre Hall and nearby Spring Mills. In Madisonburg, getwireless.net is the only fixed wireless provider, with a tower in Rebersburg, getwireless President Dan Myers said. The area’s other options are data hotspots or satellite internet like HughesNet.

“If you have a point of contact tower, if you’re in one of those hills when you can’t see the point of contact, you’re out of luck,” said Jen Snyder.

Myers said it’s true that if there is a tree or a hill blocking the house’s line of sight to the wireless tower, his company won’t be able to provide service. The company typically performs a geospatial analysis to see whether a potential customer’s house has a line of sight to its tower, he said.

Fixed wireless service is a cost-effective alternative to laying fiber-optic cable in rural and other underserved areas, said Mike Wendy, communications director for the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, based in Washington, D.C.

Usually the companies are smaller than major service providers like Verizon and Comcast, comprising about 10 employees apiece to serve 1,200 to 1,500 customers, he said. They also serve customer bases “in areas big providers have chosen not to go,” he said, because of low population density or topography challenges.

One of the biggest barriers to fixed wireless providers, said Wendy, is acquiring a license to provide service “in an exclusive swath of frequency that allows you to keep other people off it.” Unlicensed providers, he said, usually deal with frequent interference in their service areas because they are often sharing space with radio waves from several transmitters.

Sometimes one needs only to cross a road to travel from an area with broadband service to an area without. Maps of service by the major providers can seem arbitrary.

“We have a lot of people who bought homes and there’s like connectivity 100 feet away and where the providers ... are simply refusing to move a line another 100 feet,” Meinrath said.

Major providers will assert that they serve an area but then demand high fees, sometimes upward of $10,000 or $20,000, to run a line to an actual residence, he said.

“It’s crazy, right? So in a lot of rural communities, you’ll have this kind of rent-seeking in terms of the monthly fees but also this notion that the local folks should pay the capital expenses for build-out,” he said.

A Verizon spokesperson declined to comment. But Comcast, in a statement, said it’s expanding service in parts of rural central Pennsylvania.

“We’ve invested more than $5 billion in our Pennsylvania network since 2011, which today enables us to provide broadband service to more than 99 percent of the homes we pass in the commonwealth, including service areas in central Pennsylvania,” said Robert Grove, vice president of communications for Comcast’s Keystone Region.

The region includes parts of northeastern, central and western Pennsylvania, the Maryland panhandle, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia. Grove said the company is always looking at opportunities to extend service in that area. An ongoing upgrade will bring “internet to about 3,700 additional homes in rural areas of Fayette and Somerset counties,” he said.

“There are some low-density areas where providing service is simply not economically feasible, but Comcast remains committed to working with commonwealth and local officials to review ways to serve additional communities,” Grove said.

What can government do?

Centre County is looking at public-private partnerships to bring broadband service to people in the region who lack broadband entirely or deal with slow speeds.

“It really comes down to a quality-of-life issue,” said county commissioners Chairman Michael Pipe. “We don’t have a mandate or regulation from the state or feds to do broadband — it’s not a core mission of ours — but quality of life is.”

Towers on Centre Hall Mountain. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

In late November, the county put out a request for proposals for companies to install equipment on three county-owned 911 communications towers that would provide broadband to underserved areas in the county — one on Centre Hall Mountain, one in Woodward in Haines Township and the other on a tower behind the Willowbank building in Bellefonte.

“We thought that that was a good way that we are not taking on too many liabilities but we are utilizing our current infrastructure to be able to provide some higher-speed internet but still allowing the private sector to bid on the project in an open way and then also carry their mission out — which is to provide internet,” Pipe said.

In February, the county entered contract negotiations with internet provider Centre WISP Venture Company, based in Innovation Park, to lease the towers for broadband coverage.

Once contract negotiations wrap up, the company will start phase one of the project by installing equipment on the Centre Hall Mountain, aiming to have service up and running by September, said owner David Gibbons. Centre WISP will set up equipment on the tower in Woodward soon afterward, he said.

“The combination ... should provide coverage to the vast majority of the (Route) 192 corridor and the Route 45 corridor,” he said. That includes hard-to-reach areas like Madisonburg and Rebersburg, and areas northwest of Spring Mills like Millheim and Aaronsburg.

The last phase of the project will install equipment on the Willowbank tower to provide fixed wireless internet to Bellefonte, Pleasant Gap, Milesburg and areas of Buffalo Run Road in Benner Township.

The goal, said Gibbons, is to provide connectivity between 20 and 40 megabits per second. But often in rural areas, topography and low population density pose problems to providing the fastest service. Areas located closer to the towers will have stronger connections with fewer service disruptions, he said.

The best thing potential customers can do, Gibbons said, is visit the company’s website centrewisp.com and sign up to receive updates on the project. That way, the company knows where the demand for service is located and can “focus their energy,” he said.

“(High-speed internet) is the highway of this generation and future generations. Just like the road system of the early part of the 20th century,” said Dodson. “The difference is ... technology moves so quickly, that if we aren’t ahead of the game, it is going to take a lot more money and a lot more time and there are global impacts to us being left behind as a nation.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there is no fixed wireless internet service in Penns Valley.

Reporter Tim Johnson contributed to this report.

This series was produced with financial support from the Knight Foundation.

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Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.