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‘Staggering’ discrepancy in Pa. between rural and urban broadband coverage, study finds

Sascha Meinrath emphasizes the issues of rural broadband

Penn State's Sascha Meinrath talks about the problems of rural broadband access during the Pennsylvania Priorities event on April 24, 2019.
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Penn State's Sascha Meinrath talks about the problems of rural broadband access during the Pennsylvania Priorities event on April 24, 2019.

Centre County’s median internet download speed does not meet the federal definition of broadband, according to a landmark 2018 mapping study released Monday of broadband availability in Pennsylvania commissioned by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

In fact, the study also found “staggering” discrepancies between numbers provided by the federal government and self-reported speed tests than originally thought, said State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, at a press conference at the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg on Monday. Connectivity speeds were “substantially slower” in rural counties than in urban counties in the state, said the study.

The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed. Data from the new study, which comes from 11 million broadband speed tests run across Pennsylvania, indicate there is not one county in the state where at least 50% of the population received broadband connectivity.

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An aerial view of the village of Madisonburg, which only has one fixed wireless internet service provider and experiences internet speeds well below the federal definition of broadband. Mehdi Salehi For the CDT

“The numbers are not good for Pennsylvania and I think ... bottom line is we have a lot of work to do, this is probably gonna cost us a lot of money to do it, to bring broadband to everybody,” said Yaw at a press conference at the Capitol Rotunda in Harrisburg on Monday.

FCC data show that 100% of Centre County has access to broadband internet. But that’s simply not true, said study author Sascha Meinrath, Penn State Palmer Chair in Telecommunications. “The official broadband maps are kind of an aspirational mapping of what should be available,” he said Monday.

The median internet download speed for Centre County in 2018, according to the study, was 6.8268 Mbps, meaning 50% of test respondents had speeds below that and 50% had speeds above.

From 2014 to 2017, the average discrepancy between FCC download speed medians and self-reported download speed medians in Centre County was 4.49 Mbps, according to open source study data.

The Centre Daily Times and McClatchy’s Washington Bureau propose a multi-platform project that dives deeply into the problem and potential public- and private-sector solutions.

A Centre Daily Times series called “Rural Disconnect,” which explored the challenges rural Pennsylvania residents face with limited or zero access to broadband, found that a lack of broadband impacts education, economic development, health services and overall quality of life.

Meinrath’s study, conducted with resources from the platform Measurement Lab, an open source project of researchers, industry and public-interest partners, and an international network of researchers, combined 2018 data with a historical archive over the last decade of 15 million tests from Pennsylvania residents.

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A cell phone and a 911 tower can be seen in the distance on Centre Hall Mountain over the farmland of Madisonburg. Abby Drey adrey@centredaily.com

Using those resources, the research team was able to map the discrepancy between internet service providers’ self-reported broadband availability in the FCC’s broadband maps and the speed tests collected during the research, discovering that since 2014, it has grown exponentially in rural areas and not urban areas.

Since 2014, according to M-Lab data, at least 25,000 download speed tests ran in Centre County.

“This (discrepancy) could indicate a systematic and growing overstatement of broadband service available in rural communities,” researchers wrote in their brief.

The new study, which uses open source tools, has also generated public data on broadband speeds for areas all around the United States, said Meinrath. The online mapping portal, accessible at broadbandtest.us, allows users to “generate tens of thousands of different maps,” he said.

“We know that topography, infrastructure access, population density and even consumer ability to pay all contribute to the current situation,” said Yaw. “However, the Penn State-led team of researchers identified examples where unique partnerships, cooperative initiatives, and support from federal, state and local governments, private businesses, and nonprofits are working to bring universal, high-quality broadband to all Pennsylvanians.”

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