Pennsylvania Lags Behind Federal Broadband Speed Standards

Advances in internet technology and resulting demands for greater bandwidth outpace the benchmarks called for 13 years ago.

by Eric Scicchitano, The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa. / March 27, 2017

(TNS) — Broadband internet is available in all hamlets, villages and outposts across Pennsylvania — at least according to state standards.

Compared to the national definition, the Keystone State’s minimum connection speed is lagging.

The Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband in 2015 as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. That’s 1,500 percent faster for downloads and 2,200 percent faster for uploads compared to Pennsylvania’s 1.54/.128 minimum split set by a 2004 law.

Advances in internet technology and resulting demands for greater bandwidth outpace the benchmarks called for 13 years ago. A 5 Mbps download speed is recommended by Netflix to stream in high-definition. Demand only grows with other users in a home or business simultaneously using social media, browsing web pages or streaming video to a second device.

Discussions in Harrisburg are ongoing toward raising the standards. The House Consumer Affairs Committee held a public hearing Wednesday on the issue, and a representative from Western Pennsylvania is readying legislation to boost speeds.

“When I’m down there (Harrisburg) talking about autonomous cars this week, it’s amazing to me we’re still talking about broadband,” said state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-108, of Sunbury.

The telecommunications industry is reluctant to build new infrastructure serving rural areas, with low population limiting returns on the investment.

Jeanne Shearer, vice president, state government affairs, Windstream Communications, testified during the hearing new fiber optic lines cost between $25,000 and $50,000 a mile.

Frank Buzydlowski, director, state government relations, Verizon, told legislators the company invested $16 billion in private capital to comply with standards.

Thomas Bailey, director, state regulatory and legislative affairs, CenturyLink, said high speeds in rural areas mean more fiber cable run “further into the field,” closer to customer locations.

“In most cases placing or extending fiber to increase broadband speeds is not economical because of its high cost, the low household density in rural areas and the fact that there is no guarantee customers will buy the service,” Bailey testified.

Verizon North LLC of Philadelphia declined $23 million in federal funds to build out its infrastructure to rural areas. The speed requirement under the Connect America Fund would have been 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. The funds are now subject to competitive bidding, with Sen. Bob Casey imploring to keep the money allocated for Pennsylvania.

As it stands, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission says all companies bound by current law report 100 percent coverage.

By federal standards, 6 percent of the state lacks access to high-speed internet. The gap widens in the Valley where 45 percent of Snyder County residents lack access; Montour County, 32 percent; Union County, 21 percent; Northumberland County, 20 percent.

Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, press secretary, Pennsylvania PUC, noted how online habits evolved since 2004. There were no iPads or Facebook. Streaming video services were a concept only. Websites have become data-rich and video-driven, he said.

“It’s a whole different concept of what the internet was,” Hagen-Frederiksen said.

The commission hasn’t taken a position on potential changes to state standards. If and when legislation is introduced, PA PUC will weigh in if asked, he said.

“Changing the statute is something that requires legislation. It’s not something the PUC can do unilaterally,” he said.

State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-50, represents 650 square miles of largely rural communities in western Pennsylvania.

She intends to reintroduce a bill this year, as soon as next month, requiring minimum standards of 10 Mbps/1 Mbps — equal to the federal government’s 10/1 reduced split for its rural infrastructure subsidy program, meant to entice telecom companies to build high-speed service in unserved areas.

Should the federal standard rise, Snyder said her proposal is for Pennsylvania to match it.

Snyder said high-speed internet is an essential utility in modern times, as much so as roadways and water service. Constituents in Snyder’s district say current service makes it impossible for some to complete homework online, participate in web-based college courses or conduct business.

“I recognize the investments for companies but let’s be real. The testimony we heard yesterday is that telecommunications is the largest industry in Pennsylvania. They’re booming. Yeah, it’s an investment, and it’s an investment we need,” Snyder said.

Snyder is open to incentives to entice companies to invest in rural areas. Culver agreed a balance of burden is needed for companies and customers.

©2017 The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.