For some of us, memories of dial-up internet include fighting with our siblings over wanting to use the land-line phone and computer at the same time or spending what felt like forever waiting for just one song to download.
Those are trivial problems compared to the ones that some people across Pennsylvania and Centre County face in the age of just about everything being affected by the internet. Today, we pay bills, run businesses, get an education online — and millions are doing it with slow speeds.
“For many people in the state, according to the data that we’re getting, dial-up would be an improvement,” said Sascha Meinrath, Palmer Chair in Telecommunications in Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.
Ten years ago, Meinrath co-founded Measurement Lab, a multimillion-dollar “global broadband measurement platform.” Now, he’s in the final stretch of a 14-month study — supported by $50,000 from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, self-investment from the researchers and access to M-Lab for free — to look at what internet speeds are people actually receiving.
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Who has broadband access in Pa.?
He said there are two main ways that the data is being gathered: https://pa.broadbandtest.us/ and by Googling “broadband speed test” (it’s the first box that shows up). Millions of data points have already been collected.
The preliminary findings, Meinrath said, are that actual speeds and advertised availability are often “wildly discrepant,” particularly in rural communities.
For years, the best available data was the FCC’s, which only provides advertised speeds — not actual ones, Meinrath said.
“What we’re seeing in our data — because we have data back to 2014 — is it looks like the discrepancy between actual and advertised speeds is growing, which is to say that providers are being more and more liberal in what they claim to provide and people are receiving slower and slower speeds vis-a-vis the advertised speed. That’s a real problem.”
Right now, the Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a minimum of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed.
Meinrath said that definition was chosen to be the minimum “viable speed for running the most-used applications and services that Americans use today.”
If you had to choose between Netflix (or your streaming service of choice) and cable, it’s a no-brainer, he said.
But not everybody gets that choice.
The “supermajority” of people across “huge swaths” of Pennsylvania are not getting broadband connectivity, Meinrath said, and “that is definitely borne out by our analysis.”
That’s millions of people. Pennsylvania’s population is about 12.8 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
How are rural areas affected?
The research is also showing that not only are speeds faster in urban areas than rural areas, but also the differential between actual and advertised speeds is greater in rural areas, Meinrath said. That means that, in many ways, rural areas are doubly disadvantaged.
“And if you believe, as I do, that we’re heading into a digital age where connectivity is a critically important infrastructure — to not have connectivity is going to be devastating,” he said.
He means that literally.
Meinrath continued: “We could see 10 percent of rural communities completely fail without connectivity.”
The next phase of the study, assuming it receives funding, Meinrath said, is to look at pricing. He said there’s anecdotal evidence that people are paying more for worse service in rural communities.
So, he said, this project will keep pulling useful information into the public domain for at least the next year.
“This is all a means to the end of educating the general public and key decision makers with additional insights about the true state of broadband connectivity,” Meinrath said.
How will the broadband problem be solved?
It’s “really bleak,” he said. It has already caused “significant damage” and that damage will only “accelerate” in the coming years without intervention.
“And really that’s what this comes down to: solving the problem, bridging that divide, ensuring that rural Pennsylvania is not put at an increasing disadvantage because of their lack of broadband service options,” Meinrath said.
There needs to be “major investment,” he said, and the solution needs to be systematic and statewide.
But there is the opportunity for that.
The Rural eConnectivity Pilot Program, or ReConnect Program, is a federal broadband loan and grant pilot program. Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 in March, which allocated $600 million to expand broadband service in rural areas.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website, to be eligible for either a 100 percent or a 50 percent loan/50 percent grant, the proposed funded service area in an application needs to be a rural area where 90 percent of the households lack sufficient broadband access. The grant program defines sufficient access as 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload.
To qualify for a 100 percent grant, the proposed funded service area in an application needs to be a rural area where 100 percent of the households lack sufficient broadband access. Additionally, the proposed network, regardless of the funding type, must be able to provide all households with minimum speeds of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
Meinrath said that roughly half of Pennsylvania is eligible for access to this $600 million pot.
“So this tiny, little investment from the state legislature is going to open up millions, possibility tens of millions of dollars in investment in this state in the immediacy — this is right now — because we have better data and we can demonstrate empirically that large swaths of the state have a need that is not being met and that these funds are exactly created to solve for,” he said.
That money could go to major telecommunications companies like Verizon, Meinrath said, but more likely, it’ll go to mom-and-pop startup companies, municipal entities or other alternative business models.
“To be honest, I don’t care who solves the problem, but somebody better damn solve the problem,” he said.
Meinrath and his colleagues will be delivering an in-depth report of their findings and more than 1,000 maps — multiple for every district — to state legislators. This phase of the study is slated to wrap in April.
The hope, he said, is that once the methodology, mapping systems and everything else are proofed out here in Pennsylvania, that it’ll be much easier for others to follow suit. Then eventually, the goal is for the federal government to start reporting actual and advertised speeds, pricing and availability as a matter of course.