The Lead

Pa.’s rural broadband problem is bigger than anyone thought

By: - June 4, 2019 9:57 am

State lawmakers who lead the Center for Rural Pennsylvania released their report on rural broadband access in the Capitol on Monday, June 3.

Pennsylvania lawmakers have long known that the state’s rural areas have poor internet access, but a new study suggests the problem is even greater than they’d imagined.

A study published Monday by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that the Federal Communications Commission may have greatly underestimated the number of Pennsylvanians who lack a broadband internet connection.

The FCC estimates that 800,000 Pennsylvanians, mostly in rural areas, lack access to broadband internet, even though speedy connections are available in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Researchers from Penn State University say they have reason to doubt those findings.

Analyzing speed tests from more than 11 million Pennsylvania households in 2018, they found that median internet speeds across the state were so slow that they failed to qualify as a broadband connection under the FCC’s own criteria. The federal regulator defines broadband internet as download speeds of at least 25 megabytes per second.  

Researchers also found that connectivity speeds were substantially lower in rural counties than in urban and suburban counties.

“The numbers are not good for Pennsylvania,” Center for Rural Pennsylvania Chair Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, said at a press conference Monday morning. “The bottom line is, we have a lot of work to do.”

Rep. Garth Everett, a Lycoming County Republican and vice-chair of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said the study revealed the existence of “two Pennsylvanias” with vastly different internet infrastructure.

“One Pennsylvania is in urban and suburban areas with a great connection, and in rural Pennsylvania, your connections aren’t close to what is necessary to do homework or download forms,” Everett said.

Everett said that poor connections also hinder Pennsylvania’s farmers, who increasingly rely on the internet to operate autonomous farm equipment.

Sascha D. Meinrath, the Penn State University professor who led the study, said paltry internet access in the United States is the result of decades of underinvestment in internet infrastructure by federal, state, and municipal officials.

Inaccurate data from the FCC, which is self-reported by internet service providers, only obfuscates the full scope of the problem in Pennsylvania and beyond, Meinrath said.

Meinrath said that the connectivity data published by the FCC, which can inform state and local policy, “do not represent the actual, lived experience” of internet users in Pennsylvania.

He said that state and federal regulators could improve speeds and reduce costs by fostering greater competition in the internet market.

“We desperately need additional players in this space,” Meinrath said. “A good competition policy would eliminate all barriers to entry.”

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.