Late last year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed two pieces of legislation that will help deploy broadband to our state’s rural areas. Act 98 of 2020 relaxed restrictions on the ability of Pennsylvania electric cooperatives, cable companies and other entities to attach broadband units to existing utility poles. Act 132 of 2020 provided about $5 million in funding for nongovernmental groups to install broadband across underserved areas of Pennsylvania.
We can all agree that this is good news for our rural communities and residents, many of whom are without high-speed broadband internet service. But more still needs to be done to ensure that this essential service is available, and affordable, for all of our rural residents. Since the early 2000s, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania has been documenting and reporting the need for broadband service in our rural areas. Recently, in 2018, the Center’s Board of Directors hosted a public hearing in Wellsboro to gather information from broadband service providers and consumers about the issues, challenges, and opportunities for delivering broadband services in rural Pennsylvania.
At the Wellsboro hearing, we were told many times that broadband access meant so much more than interactive gaming or connecting with friends. We heard that broadband access meant connecting with your health care provider, completing a classroom assignment, and maintaining and expanding your business. Fast forward two years, and we all realize just how important broadband is to our healthcare system, schools, businesses, and everyday life. In concert with the 2018 hearing, the Center sponsored research to learn more about broadband access and availability statewide. That research, published in 2019, collected more than 11 million broadband speed tests from across Pennsylvania and found that median speeds across most areas of the state did not meet the Federal Communications Commission’s criteria to qualify as a broadband connection. That research documented the varying levels of actual connectivity speeds that Pennsylvanians experienced while participating in a broadband test. The maps produced from those tests made it perfectly clear that a digital divide in Pennsylvania is real, and that connectivity speeds are substantially slower in our rural counties. The study was a first of its kind and clearly showed the shortcomings of the FCC procedure to assess broadband connectivity speed in our area.
To follow up the 2019 research, the Center sponsored another study to learn if rural Pennsylvanians were willing to pay for broadband services. That research, published late last year, underscored rural Pennsylvanians’ willingness to pay for high-speed broadband services and showed that urban and rural Pennsylvania residents are receiving inequitable broadband service — not only in terms of broadband speed, but also in the prices they pay for service.
While we know that there are some challenges of deploying broadband because of geography and isolation, we also know that there are solutions. Take for example the work of Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc., one of 13 rural electric cooperatives in Pennsylvania servicing Tioga, Potter, Bradford, Lycoming, Clinton, McKean and Cameron counties, which is now building a broadband network in northcentral Pennsylvania. With the help of state and federal grants and loans, Tri-Co Connections, the internet subsidiary of Tri-County Rural Electric, will install 2,800 miles of fiber lines throughout the cooperatives service area over the next six years. Tri-County had its challenges – including a large senior population and a large concentration of second homes in its territory – but it also saw the opportunities and benefits of working to provide broadband to its communities. Things like preventing youth outmigration, promoting tourism, creating jobs, improving access to telehealth, and increased housing values, all proved more beneficial than waiting for some other service provider to come along.
Act 98 may encourage others to take up the challenge of providing broadband to our rural communities. Relaxing the regulations on cooperatives was one of the recommendations in our most recent research on broadband internet services, Broadband Demand: The Cost and Price Elasticity of Broadband Internet Service in Rural Pennsylvania. As the legislature begins the 2021-2022 session, this research provides additional recommendations on the next steps that may be taken to continue the deployment of high-speed broadband internet service to rural Pennsylvania. For example, it recommends changing Pennsylvania’s current definition of “broadband,” which is defined as 1.544 megabits per second download and 128 kilobits per second upload speed, to meet or exceed federal definitions for broadband.
Over the years, and especially last year, we’ve all come to realize just how important broadband is to our economy, our healthcare system, our schools, and more. Broadband deployment will continue to be an issue in the years ahead.
The Center has been promoting broadband development in our rural areas for more than a decade and it will continue to provide valuable data and policy recommendations. Rural Pennsylvania needs high-speed broadband services.