Pennsylvania Pushes for High-Speed Internet

According to the FCC, over 800,000 Pennsylvania residents have no access to broadband internet.

by Justin Strawser, The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa. / March 28, 2017
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(TNS) -- The owners of Price’s Income Tax Service in Port Trevorton say they experience regular internet outages and fear businesses like theirs won’t be able to survive here in the digital world of the 21st century.

Employees at Gilson Boards in Winfield waste time traveling from Winfield to Lewisburg to download graphics for custom orders, put them on a flash drive and return them to their headquarters. The co-founder of the company fears that, without a drastic change, their competitors will overtake them within five years.

The expenditures for quality internet infrastructure for Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg prevent the park from building more roller coasters.

Owners at Fresh Roasted Coffee in Selinsgrove say they wouldn’t be able to survive without high-speed internet access.

These Valley business owners and others don’t want to be left behind. That’s why the Greater Susquehanna Valley Chamber of Commerce has placed access to quality internet and broadband service atop its priority list in its 2017-18 strategic plan.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 10 percent of all Americans, about 34 million people, lack access to high-speed internet service. A majority of them, about 23 million people, live in rural areas similar to many of those in the Valley.

The FCC defines broadband internet access as that which “allows users to access the internet and internet-related services at significantly higher speeds than those available through ‘dial-up’ services.” Speeds vary depending on technology and level of service and typically provide faster speeds when downloading files from the internet to your computer than when uploading files to the internet.

In 2015, in its Broadband Progress Report, the FCC changed the definition of broadband, raising minimum download speeds from 4 megabits per second, or Mbps, to 25 Mbps, and the minimum upload speed from 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps. According to Apple.com, 2-hour high-definition movies range in file size from 3.5 gigabytes, or GB, to 4.5 GB. Using an online calculator at www.download-time.com, downloading a 4 GB file at 4 Mbps would take two hours, 23 minutes and nine seconds. At 25 Mbps, it would take 22 minutes and 54 seconds.

In Pennsylvania, according to the FCC, 803,645 people — 6 percent of the population — have no access to broadband internet. Locally, the numbers of residents without access is 45 percent in Snyder County, 20 percent for Northumberland County, 32 percent for Montour and 21 percent for Union County, according to the FCC. The commission offers subsidies through the Connect America Fund to providers able to offer speeds of 10 Mbps upload and 1 Mbps download in unserved areas.

Geoffrey Shaffer, the point person for the chamber’s broadband and internet initiative, said the availability of high-speed internet became a top priority following a recent survey of business owners.

“One of the biggest things, small businesses are having a harder time,” Shaffer said. “They need it. Without it, they may need to move elsewhere. They need it to grow, to be sustainable.”

It’s important because it would allow multiple offices to function as one, to telecommute and “access everything” they need from anywhere, Shaffer said.

‘Everything is online’

Amelia Price, who with her husband Mike Price has operated the income tax service in Port Trevorton for 35 years, say they need broadband service or they might be left behind.

“Everything is online,” Amelia Price said. “Your information, your clients, your forms, your access. You don’t get anything in the mail. We are moving to a digital society. Anyone who doesn’t have digital access is excluded.”

The Prices still have access to a Digital Subscriber Line, which uses an existing 2-wire copper telephone line connected to one’s home, meaning service is delivered at the same time as landline telephone service. For nearly a year, the Snyder County business has experienced monthly internet outages. As a small business, they don’t have the money to spend on enticing providers to build the infrastructure needed.

“If you’re willing to pay, you can get anything you want,” Price said. “Exorbitant is only beginning to describe it. It is still considered a luxury. It is required for life, but it is not required to provide it.”

Verizon spokesman John Johnson, of Basking Ridge, N.J., said it would cost “millions if not billions” to provide copper or fiber lines for broadband internet across rural Pennsylvania.

“When you have a lot of rural geography, the cost to serve goes up exponentially,” Johnson said. “That’s not just Pennsylvania, that’s all over the country.”

In some areas, he said, even using copper lines to deliver DSL is “impossible” due to distance and technological limitations.

“Replacing that copper with fiber is prohibitively expensive,” Johnson said.

Sam Haulman, general manager of the Sunbury Division of Service Electric, said an exact price tag to expand their internet services to rural areas is hard to nail down. “You’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.

“The difficulty is due to the expense of extending our network,” he said. “When you have these sparsely populated areas, the opportunity for revenue is not as great. That, historically, is the issue. That’s held things back to expand into rural areas.”

With technological advances, the company re-evaluates areas frequently, he noted. “Every mile we have to build is a significant expense,” Haulman said.

Haulman said he isn’t sure if legislation or regulation is the answer. “Bandwidth usage continues to grow exponentially year after year,” he said. “There’s obviously a demand. That’s only going to increase in the future.”

As the area is rural with few homes and businesses, Haulman said, “The funding is needed not only to build the infrastructure but also then fund ongoing operation and maintenance of the network as the population density does not offer enough revenue opportunities to sustain system operations.”

‘Why should I move?’

Nothing has improved with the current system, Amelia Price said. “If you can get online, it’s spotty and slow,” she said. “You might as well go make yourself a cup of coffee while you wait to connect.”

Price said she and her husband are not willing to move for better service.

“Why should I move (for better service)?” she said. “This is our family farm. It’s been in my husband’s family for 100 years. It’s where clients come to us.”

The same conversations were happening when electricity first was harnessed for power and light, she said.

“Until we find a way to reach these fringes, you will have children who can’t do their homework at home,” she said. “We have people in our practice who get the forms because they can’t get online.”

Price said the chamber’s plan is an “excellent initiative,” but she notes it shouldn’t be “purely profit based.”

‘MySpace or Facebook?’

Nick Gilson, who co-founded Gilson Boards in Winfield with Valley native Austin Royer, was fearful in October that the growing business would have to leave central Pennsylvania, but now is committed to staying in this area due to community support. However, he said, this doesn’t change the inefficient internet service, he said.

“This community has embraced us,” Gilson said. “With that said, internet access has hindered our growth. It has been a huge issue.”

The average time to download a custom graphic for a custom snowboard is two hours. It is faster to travel from their headquarters to Lewisburg, download the image, place it on a flashdrive and return to Winfield. While headquartered in the Valley, the company must outsource graphic and design work to Scranton and financial services to New York City, and the chief technology officer is located in Chicago.

“We have people working remotely across the country to get the job done. They would prefer to be here, but we don’t have the access right here, right now,” Gilson said. “To date, the lack of internet has not been a deal breaker. We’ve been able to navigate these huge challenges. Looking forward, if we don’t have access that our competition has, it may be a deal breaker over the next five years.”

The company has pioneered a new distribution plan that rests on the backbone of the internet. The majority of their competitors, Gilson said, could take three years from manufacture to purchase. Gilson Boards doesn’t have distributors; rather they use direct relationships to deliver orders directly to doorsteps.

“The question is, are we MySpace or Facebook?” Gilson said. “If we don’t have access to internet, we will lose to our copycats. If they mimic us with better internet access, we will lose.”

Gilson is planning to move the offices to the former Lewisburg Area High School. While committed to stay within the Valley, the manufacturing portion of the company may have to relocate to another Valley community with better internet access, he said.

“It’s been a wonderful spot, but we’re already feeling the strain of it,” Gilson said. “It’s slowing us down. It’s not something I can tolerate as the leader of this business.”

Internet or roller coasters

While the area surrounding Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg has less than stellar internet access, park officials say they are not facing any issues at this time — but that’s because they fork over the money to build the infrastructure at the park and to pay providers to wire them.

“The bottom line is that we don’t have connectivity issues, but it’s because we pay for it,” park spokeswoman Stacy Ososkie said. “We could build many more coasters if we didn’t have to worry about infrastructure of the park.”

Jim Martini, the electrical manager of the park since 1981, said the first fiber infrastructure was put into the park in 1994 when the park put in new cash register systems and connected all the gift shops. Originally, all vendors pulled their bids when they realized the infrastructure to support the new system wasn’t in place, but Knoebels put the wires in itself.

“As we advanced through the years with additional point of sales systems, running time clocks and video over the fiber, our needs increased,” Martini said. “We have now upgraded the fiber three times, the last time was two years ago. We’re investing enough to protect ourselves for 20 years.”

Two different lines from Service Electric — one from Shamokin, another from Bloomsburg — feed into the park, creating redundancies in the system “because we cannot exist without them,” Ososkie said.

Martini said the park is connected with Lake Glory Campground near Catawissa and Three Ponds Golf Course in Elysburg, another expensive project.

“It’s there if you want to pay for it,” Martini said. “There isn’t affordable internet connection in this area. Your options are limited.”

Solutions and questions

Bill Geise, president and owner of Geise Associates in Sunbury, has provided outsourced and managed support services to businesses in the Valley for 33 years. A significant part of their work is improving access and output of data over the internet from a business’ network. Geise is a chamber member and a former IT committee chairman.

“Many smaller businesses have put together systems that function but not well or as fast as they like as usage has increased,” Geise said. “To a certain degree that is an effect of the internal equipment of the business’ network. Once that is optimized then we can look at the internet service that is available to them.”

The population density in the rural area doesn’t support some of the newest infrastructures, such as metropolitan fiber like FIOS from Verizon, Geise said.

“We do have excellent fiber backboned cable modem service and, for a price, fiber to the business from PenTeleData,” he said. “These services are reliable but may cost more for the same bandwidth than in more urban areas. Also these services have a growing but limited footprint with a significant portion of our rural areas not having service.”

The high speed internet service question has several components, Geise said.

“One is the definition of high speed in the first place,” he said. “How fast is it in each direction — down and up? Downstream speed is for downloading and browsing the internet, upstream higher speeds are needed to send information or run servers being accessed by people outside a business’ walls. There is also a need for speed in both directions for many businesses.”

“So how fast downstream and upstream is fast enough? Another issue tied to this is latency, or how long it takes for a request to be sent from point A to point B. This is especially important for video conferencing and Voice over Internet Protocol phone services. Lower latency is better.”

The second important component, he said, is service coverage, which is defined as “speed of internet service available from any source at a specific location,” and as previously mentioned there are large holes in areas of coverage from any service provider, he said. “In order to have universal service it must be made profitable for an ISP to pull fiber to unserved areas.”

Geise has been involved in local initiatives for more than 20 years to address these issues. He said there are three potential ways to offer speed increases: prove need exists, provide grants or other significant forms of funding and expand from an area of service to a neighboring area without service. He said the third option seems to have worked best.

He said it’s a problem for rural areas on a national scale.

“One suggestion that may make sense is a program modeled after the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which provided federal loans for the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve isolated rural areas of the United States,” Geise said.

‘A city of opportunity’

Derek Wolfgang, the co-chairman of Sunbury Revitalization Inc.’s business, economic and development committee, said the group’s focus over the last year has been developing an implementation plan to attract new commercial business and economic growth. The committee has been seeking grants to bring better internet access and infrastructure to the area.

“What’s exciting about the GSV chamber identifying this as their top priority is that it aligns with an area of discussion and interest of our organization over the past year,” Wolfgang said. “SRI is involved with the chamber, and we feel we can continue to work closely with them to work on common interests such as internet access. This only helps our initiatives and provides better opportunity for all of us. We’ve spent much of the past several months also identifying and reaching out to organizations that share common interest and by all of us working together this only improves our ability to be successful with implementation.”

Wolfgang is also the co-founder and chief product officer of Dvelopd LLP, a new start-up company in Sunbury that offers modern technology solutions, mobile application development and a variety of services for individuals and businesses.

“My business partner, Dave Taylor, and I feel Sunbury can be a hub for technology and development,” Wolfgang said. “We’ve found Sunbury to be a city of opportunity for us and want to bring to the forefront that new and expanding technology can be developed right here in the city. We should continue to improve and look for ways to be in the forefront of innovation and advances in technology that give us an edge over other areas.”

Chamber members were originally scheduled to meet March 15 to accept the 2017-18 plan, but the meeting was postponed until May 24 due to the March 14 winter storm. The chamber had a response from 180, or 20 percent, of its members. Approximately 90 percent of those responses came from small businesses with 50 employees or less. Forty members of The Improved Milton Experience, a nonprofit corporation focused on community revitalization, also responded to the survey.

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