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As Pennsylvanians face a dramatic shortage of rural broadband access, the Centre Daily Times and the Knight Foundation are driving a discussion on the digital divide: what it means for our communities, how it developed and how to fix it. We've assembled a panel of 14 influential Pennsylvanians who will offer their views through the month of April.

Meet our Influencers here and see why they're so passionate about this issue.

Wayne Campbell

Wayne Campbell

President, Pennsylvania State Grange

The Grange has always been at the forefront in working to improve life in rural America. We were instrumental in getting rural free mail delivery, in getting electricity out into the countryside, and even paved roads in rural areas. Broadband has become for the Grange today what rural electrification was previously. Every individual in today’s electronic world is affected by broadband. Without adequate broadband, farmers cannot utilize the features on modern farm equipment; children cannot do homework at home - they must stay late at school or go early to log onto the school’s wi-fi to complete homework assignments; senior citizens cannot take advantage of telemedicine when they cannot connect to the internet; businesses will not locate in rural areas when they cannot get the internet needed to operate the businesses of today. Everyone deserves an equal opportunity, and this opportunity is denied without adequate broadband not only across Pennsylvania but throughout America.

Tom Charles

Tom Charles

Executive vice president, system development, and chief strategy officer, Mount Nittany Health

Connectivity is a lifeline to quality of life and access to health care information. Expanding rural broadband would give customers in our surrounding communities access to much-needed telecommunications services to improve economic, education and health care opportunities.

Curt Coccodrilli

Curt Coccodrilli

State director, USDA Rural Development in Pennsylvania

As a tireless advocate for economic development, my mission is to create and implement innovative new solutions to rural connectivity by leveraging financial options with our partners and customers. This will be accomplished through the USDA broadband programs for rural areas; the Re-Connect Program, Rural Broadband Access Loan and Loan Guarantee Program; and Community Connect and Infrastructure Loan Program. I believe that this $600 million appropriation is a new avenue of funding for rural broadband infrastructure development and will reach the goal of connecting rural communities to support connectivity, agriculture production, marketing, e-commerce, health care and education. In Pennsylvania, I am committed to delivering this new financial model to bring high-speed internet access to rural America to grow and attract businesses, retain and develop talent, and maintain rural quality of life.

Tammy Gentzel

Tammy Gentzel

Executive director, Centre County United Way

As someone who has worked extensively with those who live and work in rural parts of Centre County, I am consistently concerned by the areas of the county that are “dead spots” for broadband services. In today’s communication environment, lack of service can have profound consequences: children who cannot appropriately complete homework assignments and are therefore at risk for poor school performance; adults who cannot easily access web-based job searches, submit job applications, access health care records, renew insurance and registration, or register for government programs; businesses that have poor to little connectivity and are put at a disadvantage for marketing, communications with customers, and improving sales. All of these situations suppress our ability to improve the vitality of our local communities. In my opinion, addressing and solving the problem should be a top priority. I am hopeful this project will help to identify solutions.

Margaret Gray

Margaret Gray

County administrator, Centre County government

Geographically speaking, Centre County is the fifth-largest county in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, consisting of 1,100 square miles with 90 percent of this area classified as rural. With respect to rural broadband internet services, both underserved and unserved areas are present within the county and, as is widely recognized, broadband deployment is challenging due to terrain and distance. New and different methods and technologies are emerging that may present new opportunities for the provision of broadband services in rural areas, and we look forward to participating in a collaborative dialogue about this critical need.

Brian Griffith

Brian Griffith

Superintendent, Penns Valley Area School District

Education is not unlike other work-related situations where our days extend beyond the standard eight hours. Education through collaboration is also no longer bound by being physically present within the walls of a school. I agreed to participate because I desire to advocate for our rural students to have access to affordable and sufficient internet speed so that they have the same opportunities to learn as do other students.

Norman Kennard

Norman Kennard

Chair of broadband-related issues, Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission

We are concerned about a growing gap between Pennsylvania communities and businesses that have access to higher broadband speeds, and those that do not. Data technology has led to quantum leaps in education, medicine, business, industry, entertainment and societal development, and it is essential that we explore ways to close this ”digital divide.”

Michael Kubit

Michael Kubit

Vice president for information technology and chief information officer, Penn State

Reliable, quality broadband service is essential in all communities, as it enables access to education, health care, business, government programs and more. The rural communities of Pennsylvania have a marked reduction in access, affecting students, adults, farmers, businesses and all other segments of society. The Pennsylvania Influencer Project’s work to address issues created by the digital divide can have a significantly positive impact on the citizens of Pennsylvania who are at an unfair disadvantage by virtue of their geographic locations. Penn State University exists to make the world a better place, and that starts with our mission of teaching, research and service. It is critically important to the health of our community and our commonwealth to level the field of access by elevating this conversation.

Sascha Meinrath

Sascha Meinrath

Palmer chair in telecommunications, Penn State

Broadband connectivity is the life-blood of a 21st century economy. In today’s digital world, you cannot have vibrant social, civil and economic spheres without broadband. And as a longtime community organizer, open technology advocate and telecommunications expert, I know that we need to change the national debate over broadband connectivity to include far-reaching, bold interventions that will meet the challenges of the current industrial-to-digital transition. I want to see a new social contract that includes universal, free, baseline broadband connectivity for all. These conversations are a mechanism for raising awareness and garnering support behind these sorts of visionary ideas.

Matt Nussbaum

Matt Nussbaum

Associate vice president, Geisinger clinic operations

Expanding broadband will enable health care providers to more effectively communicate with their patients in rural areas, allow for patient monitoring and remote connections to health services, and address many social determinants of health. It’s especially important for physicians and other providers to have this connectivity for their sickest patients, those with chronic diseases, to assure treatment plan compliance and to help prevent acute episodes that all too often lead to unnecessary emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Expanding broadband is critical to expanding telehealth including video conferencing, remote monitoring and wireless communication and is key to improving patient access in rural areas.

Steve Samara

Steve Samara

President, Pennsylvania Telephone Association

Deploying broadband to the rural areas of Pennsylvania is a critical public policy discussion that needs to include the perspectives of the telecommunications companies who have been building the networks to deliver these services for decades. I commend those at the Pennsylvania Influencer Project for recognizing the important role that PTA member companies and their customers have in this discussion and I look forward to both contributing to, and learning from, this significant dialogue.

Vern Squier

Vern Squier

President and CEO, Chamber of Business & Industry of Centre County

The absence of adequate broadband service impedes local economic growth, health care offerings, education opportunities at all levels and overall commerce.

Denise Sticha

Denise Sticha

Executive director, Centre County Libraries

As the executive director of the Centre County Library and Historical Museum, I am very excited to be included in this initiative to study broadband issues challenging our communities. With locations in Bellefonte, Centre Hall, Philipsburg and a Bookmobile that travels throughout the county, we see firsthand how a lack of high-speed internet connections impacts access to government services, financial and health information, career and economic development and communications. While geography is often a contributing factor, we hope that through this project, we can identify other factors that impede telecommunications and work to find a strategy that addresses both short-term project and future planning.

Charima Young

Charima Young

Director of local government and community relations, Penn State

Over 10 years ago, I worked on a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) initiative called Neighborhood Networks, which was created to bridge the digital divide in rural and urban communities. The initiative began in 1995 and focused on placing technology centers in and around HUD-insured communities. It amazes me that we are still having some of these same conversations about access and affordability years later. It is imperative that we understand that technology is essential in the education, development and self-sufficiency of a community. The more we delay rural broadband access, the more we leave people behind in our economy. It requires a multiprong, collaborative solution that includes numerous stakeholders.