Rural broadband deficiency hits economic growth, education, regional leaders say

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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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Both the public and private sectors should contribute to bolstering rural broadband access in central Pennsylvania, where uneven connectivity limits economic development and growth, according to a survey of regional leaders this month.

Conducted with reader input by the Centre Daily Times, the survey found concerns that poor broadband access in outlying areas also inhibits access to health care and some students’ ability to learn. Fourteen leaders chosen by the CDT received the questionnaire, asking what they see as the most important consequences of the broadband deficiency.

The respondents, including officials in higher education, government, health care and the nonprofit sector, are part of the Pennsylvania Influencer Project — a month-long effort by the CDT, its parent company McClatchy and the Knight Foundation to spur discussion around the state’s rural broadband access.

Many respondents to the survey — the first of three — voiced concern that rural areas are being left behind as the rest of the country joins the global marketplace. Rural residents without broadband not only lose out on social opportunities, but also have trouble accessing government services like Social Security and Medicare, filing their taxes and identifying and applying for jobs online, said Denise Sticha, executive director of the Centre County Library.

Vern Squier, president and CEO of the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County, said residents miss business opportunities because they can’t access legal and accounting service providers and “a universe of vendors” that provide information and transactions that small businesses need to operate efficiently. This leads to businesses — and the people who work for them — to move elsewhere, or go under, he said.

Those obstacles extend to students, who are put at a disadvantage for completing schoolwork on time, applying to colleges or seeking out enrichment, respondents said. A Federal Communications Commission report in 2016 noted that some 23 million rural Americans — nearly 40 percent of residents in rural areas — lacked what the FCC considers high-speed access.

By contrast, 4 percent of urban Americans didn’t have high-speed access, according to the report.

“Access to the internet, enabled by adequate broadband, provides access to virtually all information known on this planet. Empowering students to have access to this knowledge, to learn and discover anything they choose, is incredibly powerful,” wrote survey respondent Michael Kubit, vice president for information technology and chief information officer at Penn State.

A lack of broadband “creates a homework gap which sometimes impacts grades, thus making it harder to succeed and prepare for college,” wrote Charima Young, director of local government and community relations at Penn State. “Therefore (students) come to college without all of the skills needed to start at the same level as their peers.”

Senior citizens suffer, too, without access to broadband, said Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania Grange. As a former driver for Rabbit Transportation, Campbell said many elderly people without good internet service spent hours of their day on shared bus systems like his to get to doctors’ appointments.

“These folks were completely exhausted till they got back home,” he wrote. “... If they could utilize ... telemedicine it would make a doctor’s visit much less demanding and economical ... if more visits could be done via the internet, those funds could be used in other places.”

With the health care system advancing technologically and relying more on telemedicine for rural coverage areas, many respondents said broadband service must catch up with the need.

“The healthcare industry is gearing up to leverage technology to address the healthcare needs of patients, address access, and engage patients in the management of their own care,” wrote Matthew Nussbaum, associate vice president of regional operations at Geisinger Health System in State College. “Without access to broadband, it will be difficult to take advantage of technology and scale those solutions.”

The solution, said most respondents, is a concerted effort among all levels of government and private industry to bring broadband to all Pennsylvanians.

Margaret Gray, administrator for Centre County government, said local governments can help meet that goal by “fostering non-traditional partnerships between the private and public sectors to include broadband users for multi-benefit projects such as water/sewer authorities, natural gas industry, and the wind energy companies.”

She also said governments could promote “the adoption of ‘dig once’ policies so that broadband fiber conduit is installed with other underground utilities.”

Tammy Gentzel, executive director of the Centre County United Way, suggested using 911 surcharges to install towers or enhance DSL in rural areas, employing infrastructure already in place.

Gains have emerged in Pennsylvania, with the recent awarding of three contracts to companies to provide broadband to rural regions, but many respondents see broadband as a public utility that needs to be addressed immediately across party affiliations and levels of government and society.

The CDT will conduct two more surveys with the 14 “Influencers” leading up to the Pennsylvania Priorities Summit: Focus on Rural Broadband Crisis on April 24 at The State Theatre in State College. Register here to join the CDT and its panel of Influencers for a discussion of challenges and solutions related to the rural broadband crisis.

This series was produced with financial support from the Knight Foundation. The Centre Daily Times maintains full editorial control of this work.