Gov. Wolf joins regional leaders at event to discuss rural broadband crisis

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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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With the rollout of Gov. Tom Wolf’s broadband initiative aimed at providing high-speed internet to every household and business in Pennsylvania, and the recent launch of 5G wireless technology, the rural broadband crisis is gaining the attention of leaders all around the country.

Wolf provided opening remarks Wednesday morning at the Pennsylvania Priorities Summit, a Centre Daily Times and McClatchy-led panel discussion on the rural broadband crisis and potential solutions held at The State Theatre. Later in the day, he stopped by Penns Valley Area High School to talk with students about their challenges accessing broadband to do schoolwork.

“Broadband is absolutely essential to life in the 21st century. If we don’t have it, that’s a problem,” said Wolf.

Not having broadband, he said, limits Pennsylvanians’ ability to do business, apply for jobs, complete schoolwork and attract new businesses and economic development to the state.

Over 6% of Pennsylvania’s population — about 800,000 people — reportedly lack access to broadband, most concentrated in rural areas.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf speaks Wednesday during the Pennsylvania Priorities event at The State Theatre. The event brought together regional leaders to discuss the rural broadband crisis. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Through the state’s broadband initiative, government has already helped study the effects of a lack of broadband and innovative ways to provide coverage in hard-to-reach areas, said Wolf.

But the biggest hurdle is getting enough money to roll out broadband networks all over the state, he said. With a gas severance tax in Pennsylvania, he said, the state could leverage almost $4.5 billion for development of broadband networks and other projects around the state.

“Whatever it takes in terms of changing public policy, changing definitions, changing requirements, changing support, we ought to do,” he said. “And that’s why I think this $4.5 billion is so important because it gives us the luxury of saying, ‘OK let’s not mess around here, let’s actually do this right,’ and presumably that $4.5 billion can leverage a lot of other resources so we can actually do this.”

For the past month, the CDT has conducted surveys with 14 leaders throughout Pennsylvania in addressing the largest problems of the rural broadband crisis and possible solutions.

Regional leaders are in agreement that a lack of broadband in rural areas adversely affects the economy, education and health. They also mostly believe that the federal government should step up its funding to rural broadband infrastructure and that governments should partner with private industry to roll out networks more quickly in areas with cost and topography challenges.

The Pennsylvania Influencer Project and Wednesday morning’s Pennsylvania Priorities Summit is a multi-part project from the CDT and its parent company McClatchy, examining the challenges and potential solutions to the rural broadband crisis.

Penn State Palmer Chair in Telecommunications Sascha Meinrath discusses the problems of broadband during the Pennsylvania Priorities event to discuss the rural broadband crisis on Wednesday at The State Theatre. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Sascha Meinrath, a panelist and telecommunications expert at Penn State, likened the lack of broadband in rural areas to being pecked to death by a chicken — it happens slowly but the outcome is dire.

Meinrath, who led a team of researchers focused on actual broadband speeds coming from houses and businesses in Pennsylvania, said the 800,000 people without broadband cited by the Federal Communications Commission gravely underestimates the true gap.

Based on 25 million speed tests run in the state, he said, “we have found no area ... where the median speed — that 50th percentile — meets the minimum criteria for broadband connectivity ... it’s millions of people without access to broadband.”

Panelists from private industry talked about the challenges internet providers face in serving rural areas in Pennsylvania, the ways in which government can work with them and a necessity for clear data on consumers and need.

“Pennsylvania is so unique in its geographic layout that one solution won’t work everywhere,” said Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania State Grange.

Panelists Michael Kubit, Steve Samara, Vern Squier and Wanye Campbell discus the private sector solutions during the Pennsylvania Priorities event by the Centre Daily Times to discuss the rural broadband crisis on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at the State Theatre. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Steve Samara, president of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association, said providers often get caught up in red tape in trying to build out infrastructure. He wants to see streamlined regulations and a willingness to work within existing infrastructure — like making it easier for providers to attach equipment to telephone poles and cell towers and run lines through different municipalities.

Panelists agreed that rural electric cooperatives are a great way for rural areas to get better service and speeds, but Vern Squier, president of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, said Pennsylvania should reach for newer technology so that the state isn’t left with infrastructure 25 years out of date. Michael Kubit, vice president for information technology at Penn State, urged private industry to consider the effectiveness of fiber optic cable. Samara agreed, adding that though it is expensive up front, it requires less maintenance, making it cheaper in the long run.

Private businesses shouldn’t bear all the cost of providing broadband to rural customers, said panelists, but there are ways to work with the government. That includes the state universal service fund, which allocates around $32 million annually to encourage competition among telecommunications providers and keep service rates affordable, said Samara.

A different panel moved on to tackle solutions to the broadband issue. Charima Young, director of local government and community relations at Penn State, said more people needed to be invited to the table on broadband issues. Pennsylvania needs to figure out a plan for developing broadband infrastructure, and how that plan will be rolled out, she said.

Several panelists said large companies like Microsoft, which is rolling out a TV whitespace broadband initiative, and 5G technology from Verizon and other companies can be leveraged to provide access to rural areas.

Curt Coccodrilli, the state director for the USDA Rural Development in Pennsylvania speaks during the Pennsylvania Priorities event by the Centre Daily Times to discuss the rural broadband crisis on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at the State Theatre. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

But Curt Coccodrilli, state director for the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development, said he doesn’t think 5G technology is a viable solution for rural areas. Certain swaths of Pennsylvania still lack cell service, he said, and there are different technologies more effective at getting them coverage.

Norman Kennard, a commissioner focusing on broadband issues with the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, said the government needs to convene providers to figure out the scope of their problems. He also said the PUC needs to undertake jurisdiction to get more internet service providers on telephone poles where space is competitive.

Some panelists, like Young, raised the question of whether broadband should be considered a utility. If that were the case, she asked, how would it be regulated and who should be held accountable? If the public sector allocates dollars to private companies to provide broadband, that service should likely be held to some sort of standard, she said.

Programs like ReConnect America, said Coccodrilli, aim to close the rural broadband coverage gap and give ISPs the funds to provide speeds that meet the FCC’s definition — 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed — to rural swaths of America.

Overall, panelists valued public-private partnerships and collaboration with people living in communities unserved or underserved by broadband providers.

Centre County Government county administrator Margaret Gray speaks during the Pennsylvania Priorities event by the Centre Daily Times to discuss the rural broadband crisis on Wednesday, April 24, 2019 at the State Theatre. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Sheri Collins, acting executive director of Gov. Wolf’s Office of Broadband Initiatives, said at the state level, she wants to see communities identify their issues so that government can help address challenges.

“One of the first things to do is we need to look at some of the data that Sascha Meinrath is pulling together, but also, to Margaret (Gray, county administrator)‘s point, we need to get into the communities and we need to work with communities and find out what is occurring there,” she said.

The Restore Pennsylvania initiative and formalized process for broadband issues is on the horizon for the broadband initiatives office, she said.

“We believe there is a level of funding that needs to be available to fix some of these issues,” she said. “We go out into these rural communities, we talk about the Huntingdon County rural broadband cooperative ... they’ve been able to take that project so far, but they need an infusion of capital to continue to move it forward.”

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