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Panel: Progress slow on rural broadband access

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C. Sherman Allen finds himself getting up at 4 a.m. to send emails and use the internet because his connection might not work later in the day from his home in rural Conneaut Lake in western Pennsylvania.

If he gets a buffering symbol, as he often does, he has learned to just walk away and go do other things involving his home-based business, C. Sherman Allen Auctioneer & Associates.

“Where I live, we don’t have cable,” said Allen, who was among about 25 people who attended a rural broadband seminar Thursday morning at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

Allen is among perhaps millions of Pennsylvanians who either don’t have access to broadband internet or who don’t have the internet speeds needed to run modern tools for small businesses, students and farmers. The panel was arranged by the Pennsylvania State Grange, which has made rural broadband its main issue in recent years. Panelists included state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill of York County; Betsy Huber, president of the National Grange; Steve Samara, president of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association; and Sheri Collins, deputy secretary of the state office of technology and innovation with the Department of Economic and Community Development.

The Grange held a similar meeting at the Farm Show a year ago, so the panelists updated the audience on developments since. They outlined how the broadband issue is a suburban problem, not just a rural issue, and how even parts of some urban areas also have access issues. Those lacking broadband cannot take advantage of features such as GPS – which is needed to run modern farm equipment – or telemedicine. Students also find themselves without the ability to do basic homework assignments.

Huber has been on national committees that have been studying the problems for years. A number of recommendations have been made to federal agencies that could help alleviate the problems. Model municipal codes and streamlined administrative reviews might help companies gain easier access to communication poles, for example, so new infrastructure could be erected, she mentioned. In Pennsylvania, a company trying to run 20 miles of new broadband might have to go through four different municipalities and their various zoning rules, she noted. Standard best practices would help accelerate deployment of new systems, she said. She added, however, that there is no timeframe for when the recommendations might be adopted.

No quick fixes

While the problems are evident, the solutions have been slower to develop, the panelists noted, partly because the deployment of new systems is costly. In December, the efforts got a boost when the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would be offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to build broadband infrastructure nationwide. That might sound like a lot, but the panelists noted that in Pennsylvania alone the cost could be up to $1 billion to extend broadband to all corners of the state by 2022, which is a stated goal of the Wolf administration.

“It is a billion-dollar proposition to get us to 100 mbps in rural Pennsylvania,” said Samara. “That is a b, not an m.”

Collins said that she was made a point person for the state in the fall, so she is still learning about the issues. She noted that Gov. Tom Wolf is committed to solving the problem. The state has invested in infrastructure through various funding sources, such as an initiative to leverage federal dollars with state Department of Transportation money to extend broadband along highways.

Some of the panelists noted that funding always will be an issue and that it is difficult to get agreement on consumer fee increases, even if it is something like a relatively modest 25 cents tacked onto existing monthly fees. Because it is a largely rural problem, Samara noted, fee increases are tough sells in urban areas.

Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania State Grange, noted that many urban projects, such as sports arenas, get financial help from all state residents, so all sides should work together on broadband solutions. Knowing that issues exist in suburban areas, as well, should help garner widespread support through education, the experts noted.

Allen, whose family also runs a dairy farm from his home, said he is a Grange member and attends the Farm Show every year. He attended the first forum on rural broadband last year.

“In my business, I use the internet to do searches on items we are selling,” he said, noting that he also does a lot of work on his smartphone. “I do a lot of email.”

He said he has tried to gauge his internet speed by using an online tool, but the speeds were so slow he couldn’t get an actual gauge. He is not exactly sure what the issues are, but he is concerned that customers might be paying for speeds they are not getting.

“I am not a techy person,” he said. “But I don’t think there was a whole heck of a lot accomplished since last year. That is my take on it. I guess that is the way the wheels of government turn.”

Campbell and others noted that the successes are there, including a recent announcement about a plan to make improvements in Potter County.

“This is a project that is not going to be completed in one year or two years or even three or four years,” he said at the start of the meeting. 

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