What are the biggest hurdles to providing rural broadband? Regional leaders weigh in

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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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Cost is one of the biggest factors holding back infrastructure development in rural areas to provide high-speed internet, according to a survey of regional leaders this month.

Conducted with reader input by the Centre Daily Times, the survey found concerns that high cost, low competition and lack of public funding in the broadband market hurt rural consumers. Fourteen leaders chosen by the CDT received the questionnaire, asking why broadband service is so difficult to provide in rural areas and how elected officials can facilitate better access.

The respondents, including officials in higher education, government, health care and the nonprofit sector, are part of the Pennsylvania Influencer project — a monthlong effort by the CDT, its parent company McClatchy and the Knight Foundation to spur discussion around the state’s rural broadband access.

Over 70% of respondents thought the cost of laying fiber and cable to provide robust, high-speed internet in rural areas was the biggest impediment to getting broadband connectivity to rural Pennsylvanians.

“In my conversations with consumers ... it seems like the over-riding issue is cost,” wrote Tammy Gentzel, executive director of the Centre County United Way. “Like it or not, broadband is a product being sold to consumers. Business’ number one priority is profit. In today’s environment, they have little incentive to develop or invest in infrastructure in areas where it is unlikely they will recoup those costs.”

Low population density and topography challenges in rural areas were also cited by respondents as key reasons providers face difficulties getting broadband service to rural residents.

More than a third of respondents said they believe that instead of penalizing internet providers for charging rural residents similar prices for high-speed internet as they do for suburban and urban residents, the government should incentivize companies to come up with a more fair pricing system.

“We need cooperation from electric companies allowing the use of utility poles, uniform permitting guidelines in towns, and government to provide incentives to complete this task,” wrote Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania Grange.

But Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications expert at Penn State specializing in internet freedom, sees it differently, saying federal consumer protection laws against price-gouging and anti-competitiveness need to be enforced and providers who don’t comply should be penalized.

Still, 28% of respondents thought increased competition in the broadband market would benefit consumers by giving them access to better quality and more fair prices.

Additionally, respondents echoed their comments last week in calling for more public-private partnerships to roll out broadband coverage for rural residents in all areas of Pennsylvania.

“The ability for the federal government to partner with local institutions and communities to provide essential broadband connectivity is critical,” wrote Curt Coccodrilli, state director for USDA Rural Development in Pennsylvania. “USDA Rural Development is a lead federal agency that funds broadband in rural America. The ReConnect program invites applications from a broader set of applicants including telecommunications companies, electrical cooperatives, (internet service providers), and municipalities.”

Several respondents likened broadband coverage to a public utility, with some suggesting that it could be regulated as such.

But Steve Samara, president of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association, cautioned against internet service rate regulation, calling it a “slippery slope that may make provisioning broadband in rural areas even less attractive.”

But nearly all respondents said they think a solution needs to come out of a joint effort between several different entities.

Said Penns Valley Area School District Superintendent Brian Griffith: “If we believe that broadband is indeed important then we need to provide the funding necessary to make it a reality. Imagine if we took the approach of waiting for private funding to build roads, operate schools or provide for other governmental services.”

This series was produced with financial support from the Knight Foundation. The Centre Daily Times maintains full editorial control of this work.