Rural Western Pennsylvania Faces Acute Lack of Broadband, but Federal Government Says Help is on the Way

In western Pennsylvania, 3.5 million people live in rural spots lacking high-speed Internet, Sen. Bob Casey says.

by Michael Roknick, The Herald / July 3, 2018

(TNS) – HERMITAGE, PA. – Gray MacKenzie found he had to go slow in order to get fast.

While living in rural Mill Village in Erie County, MacKenzie was dead center between Union City to the east and Edinboro to the west. As co-founder of GuavaBox, a marketing business for computer software companies, having broadband Internet service was vital.

The problem was, his hometown of Mill Village lacked broadband service.

“I had to drive six or seven miles to get broadband service,’’ MacKenzie said. “It wasn’t fun.’’

Such is a common plight for those living or operating a business in rural Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

That was a large reason U.S. Sen. Bob Casey stopped at the eCenter@LindenPointe in Hermitage Monday. He was among the backers of a $600 million federal pilot program to get high-speed Internet service to rural America.

“Broadband is not a luxury; it’s a basic necessity,’’ Casey said.

President Donald Trump signed the bill into law last week. Currently, 80 percent of the 24 million American households that don’t have high-speed Internet are in rural areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

In western Pennsylvania, 3.5 million people live in rural spots that include Mercer, Lawrence and Crawford counties, Casey said.

Broadband Internet moves information at a higher speed than regular Internet service. Having broadband lets businesses transmit large amounts of information quicker, and it gives consumers quick downloads of movies, music and sought-after information.

Casey’s visit to the eCenter was hosted by the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce. Speaking before an audience of more than 50, Casey said 17 percent of all Pennsylvanians, totaling 471,000 residents, lack access to high-speed Internet service.

“That goes up to 22 percent in Mercer County,’’ Casey said. “...and that’s unacceptable.’’

Businesses without access to broadband find it’s difficult to compete, he said.

Students in rural areas of the state without broadband find themselves lagging behind, Casey said. Sixty-eight percent of schools in Pennsylvania without Internet service are in rural areas or small towns, he added.

“It doesn’t allow them to learn at the rate they should learn,’’ Casey said.

Casey recognized that rolling out broadband service in the hinterland will likely have a higher cost than in cities. So the government’s program provides loans, grants and loan guarantees.

“We must make sure access to broadband is affordable,’’ he said.

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7th District, Hermitage, was among those attending the event. He said business owners in rural parts of Mercer County have talked to him about needing broadband.

“It’s important to their business,’’ Longietti said. “These were small businesses where the owners have been able to grow it and still want to keep the business where they are.’’

Mercer County Commissioner Matt McConnell said dealing with the cost of bringing broadband to areas is a big factor for businesses.

“You’re competing with people who already have broadband,’’ McConnell said.

In a short interview after the event, Casey talked about his views on current political matters. The Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents while crossing over the American border was a big mistake, he said.

“The worst thing we can do is separate children,’’ Casey said.

He also criticized the administration on how it’s going about selecting a new judge for the U.S. Supreme Court due to the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy. The administration said it came up with a list of 25 possible nominees.

“There surely are more than 25 people in the nation that can qualify for being on the Supreme Court,’’ Casey said.

As for MacKenzie, his business is now housed in Hermitage at the eCenter, which has high-speed Internet access. The center serves as an incubation site for fledgling businesses.

“Most of the businesses here couldn’t do anything without broadband,’’ he said.

©2018 The Herald (Sharon,Pa) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.