Yes, your broadband is probably worse than the feds let on. Here’s what’s being done

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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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At first glance, the residents of York County, Pennsylvania, appear to have easy access to high-speed internet.

Just look at the federal government’s map, which depicts the area as a sea of blue, indicating that at least two internet service providers offer broadband to all who want or need it.

But reality is antithetical to the map.

Many in rural areas don’t enjoy the services the map would indicate, forcing parents to drive to the high school parking lot so their children can have internet to finish homework, depriving farmers of the money-saving benefits of digital technology, discouraging companies from moving in and creating jobs, and preventing residents from accessing telemedicine and online learning opportunities.

It’s a sharp contrast to the faster internet available in the county seat (York, pop. 44,000), much less in urban centers like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

If Pennsylvania is to make progress in addressing the internet needs of rural residents, it must first gauge the scope of the problem. That’s not going to be easy. The map maintained by the Federal Communications Commission provides little insight. Under FCC rules, carriers are allowed to report that they have an area covered if just one customer within a census “block” — not a city block, but the designation for the smallest area used by the census to tabulate data — has service. (The size of a block depends on density, with the population often ranging between 600 and 3,000.) In fact, they can claim a block is covered even if they serve no one but could do so within a “typical service interval” and without “an extraordinary commitment of resources.”

None of the terms are defined on the form providers submit.

Steep price tag

It’s as if the rules are designed to be loose enough to relieve carriers of the cost — estimated at $27,000 per mile — of laying underground fiber-optic cable in areas with few potential customers. A 2018 Government Accountability Office report stated the obvious: It is a problem when internet carriers self report.

The steep price tag has prompted the state government to offer incentives to companies to bring in the infrastructure — $35 million to help bridge Pennsylvania’s digital divide.

Any provider participating in Pennsylvania’s incentive program must exceed the FCC’s definition of high-speed and give service by June 2022.

Cash incentives notwithstanding, significant swaths of Pennsylvania remain unserved, even using the FCC’s mushy measuring stick. According to the FCC, roughly 800,000 Pennsylvanians in total are without access. But the true number is likely much higher. A recent Penn State study has placed the number of residents lacking high-speed internet — defined by the feds as download speeds of 25 megabits per second (24 Mbps is known as superfast) and upload speeds of 3 Mbps — at nearly 11 million. About 12.8 million people live in Pennsylvania.

The “supermajority” of people in Pennsylvania are not getting broadband connectivity, according to researcher Sascha Meinrath. Screenshot

The study is cited in a bill proposed by Kristin Phillips-Hill, a lawmaker central to efforts to bring rural broadband up to speed. In 2016, while a state representative, she penned an op-ed in the York Daily Record highlighting how lack of access to broadband hobbles farmers and others in rural areas.

“That editorial became a call-to-arms to address a critical issue here in the commonwealth,” Phillips-Hill said.

Since then, she has worked with other Pennsylvania leaders to form a bipartisan broadband caucus that seeks to pass legislation to expand high-speed internet access. During last year’s session, the caucus proposed a package of resolutions and a bill to assess rural broadband needs. It included auditing Pennsylvania’s education technology development fund, conducting an inventory of all government-owned communication towers, poles, buildings and other facilities to make sure they are being leveraged to provide broadband to underserved areas, and creating a task force to report back to lawmakers.

The package didn’t pass. Phillips-Hill, now a state senator, is at it again this year.

She said Pennsylvania can’t wait much longer for broadband in rural areas, not just for the sake of students but for the economy as a whole.

Andy Bater, 58, pays for two internet services to make sure his farm has consistent access so he can order supplies from Amazon and his wife can telecommute for her company based in New York. They’ve owned their farm in Julian, 10 miles outside of State College, growing switchgrass, for about 11 years.

A few years ago, his access was so bad he couldn’t send an email most of the time. He started complaining to the internet companies and raised it as an issue to the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

“It was clear to me this was going to be an issue for everyone,” he said, noting that the lack of high-speed internet affected farmers, students and those seeking health care.

Andy Bater, 58, stands with his tractor on April 10, after harvesting switchgrass, which he sells as mulch. Andy Bater Photo provided

Though internet outages won’t stymie his productivity, Bater said, farms up the road rely on it to track dairy production and market berries to buyers.

In Stewartstown, close to the Maryland border, Corey Grove relies on broadband to make sure his hens lay eggs, which he contracts to sell to a local company that in turn sells them up and down the East Coast. Using an app on his phone, he can make sure the hens’ environment stays cool — not exceeding 75 degrees — and adjust ventilation without having to be on the farm. That’s critical given he has a day job consulting farmers on conservation planning, a job that takes him on the road.

But for several months, Grove’s farm didn’t have the internet necessary to monitor his hens, necessitating several trips a day back to the operation — even though he had more than adequate broadband at his home a mile up the road. The local internet provider was able to strengthen his coverage after he complained, resolving his dilemma.

He said carriers really do want to provide better access, but Pennsylvania’s hills and lack of funding make it difficult. He’s surprised that in 2019, two places a mile apart can have different access to internet.

“All businesses have to have good, reliable high-speed internet,” Grove, 32, said. “It’s not just farming — everybody is struggling with that. The thing of it is the technology is so expensive. That’s really why companies have not been able to bring it further.”

The role of academics

Amid the FCC’s failure to provide adequate information, academics and others are stepping in to fill the void. An example is Penn State Professor Sascha Meinrath. Meinrath has collected millions of internet-speed tests crowd-sourced across Pennsylvania. His initial analysis of those broadband speeds has shown a vast discrepancy between what the FCC reports to be how quickly people can expect to access a website and what people actually experience.

He found the gap between internet speeds experienced by consumers compared with what companies tell the FCC can differ up to 400%.

“This is a huge differential,” he said.

If anything, the splits between the official measure and reality are “getting worse,” he said.

An FCC spokesman, who did not want to be named, said the commission is committed to employing the best data possible to close the digital divide. As part of this, it sought comments in 2017 on ways to develop more accurate and granular data. It also started an investigation into whether mobile wireless providers submitted incorrect coverage maps to the FCC.

“In the meantime,” the spokesman said, “the FCC is moving aggressively to expand deployment in areas that we know lack service.”

According to the FCC, roughly 800,000 Pennsylvanians in total are without high-speed internet access. Abby Drey

That means the feds, too, are offering money to subsidize rural broadband expansion — $1.5 billion allocated nationwide under the Connect America Fund last year, with $5.6 million of the windfall going to Pennsylvania, mainly the north central region.

Also providing a research boost is The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization working to fill in gaps in what is known about the state of broadband access. Recently it created a a Broadband Research Initiative. The program will study policies enacted by state legislatures around the country to find what measures are effective at bringing reliable broadband access.

“There are some pretty significant gaps in critical areas that can help policy makers make decisions,” said Kathryn de Wit, manager of the initiative.

The money is substantial, but the need is enormous. To catch up with other countries will require an investment of hundreds of billions of dollars, Menirath said.

“It’s gonna take us a while to get there,” he said.

Meinrath plans to continue his broadband research, including a study of how much people in rural and urban areas are being charged for service — a question he recently got funding to answer.

It’s important to understand broadband speeds and pricing because connectivity affects home buying, businesses and education, he said. Otherwise, he added, people working in shrinking industries will not have the wherewithal to transition into the next career.

The lack of data is “pretty damning,” Meinrath said. “This is a matter of priority. The money is there. It’s a matter of where we spend it.”

This series was produced with financial support from the Knight Foundation.

This article has been updated to reflect that The Pew Charitable Trusts is not distributing funding for broadband research.