ISPs Tell FCC Pennsylvania Is Covered; Researchers Disagree

A yearlong study funded by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, measuring median broadband speeds across the state, shows there isn't a single county where at least 50 percent of the population has broadband connectivity.

by Beth Brelje, Reading Eagle / June 4, 2019
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(TNS) — Watching Netflix, applying for a job and filling out college financial aid documents all require broadband Internet.

But, while Internet providers report to the Federal Communications Commission that all of Pennsylvania has high-speed broadband service, customers, including some in Berks County, know there are rural areas where broadband cannot be accessed.

“We knew the FCC data was not an accurate picture,” said Barry Denk, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

A yearlong study funded by the center, measuring median broadband speeds across Pennsylvania, shows there isn't a single Pennsylvania county where at least 50% of the population has broadband connectivity.

Broadband-level service is defined by the FCC as a download speed of at least 25 megabits and an upload speed of at least 3 megabits.

Anything less than that is not broadband, confirmed Christine Caldara Piatos, communications manager at the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

In Berks County, the real-time median download speed in 2018 was 7.19 megabits.

It means half of the population in Berks had a speed below that number and the other half above, the study released Monday found. The study did not look at upload speeds.

Speed was measured across the state by having digital customers click on an icon to test their speed. More than 11 million speed tests were conducted in a year.

While all counties are below the 25 megabit threshold for broadband, the study found urban areas have faster Internet; the median speed in Philadelphia is 17.17 megabits and in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County, the median speed was 20.49.

Rural counties had lower median speeds; Lebanon, 7.1 megabits; Lancaster 7.3; and Schuylkill 5.7.

Internet providers, such as Verizon, Xfinity and Penteledata, self-report their Internet speeds. Local providers in 2017 told the FCC that Berks County had 25 megabit broadband-level service.

“The FCC has noted that more than 800,000 Pennsylvanians do not have access to broadband,” the report said. “This new research indicates that these official estimates are downplaying the true state of the digital divide in Pennsylvania because they rely on self-reported data by Internet service providers.”

Broadband matters

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania conducted public hearings in April 2018 to learn more about the value of broadband access.

Reliable access to broadband can contribute to economic development, Denk said. He recalled testimony from a couple who have a printing business in Kane, McKean County. With broadband, they have been able to grow the business, hire six employees and today, 85% if their sales are Internet-based.

The hearings also found broadband benefits tourism.

A campground operator testified that the most common question from customers used to be, “Do you have a pool?” But today the first question is, “Do you have Wi-Fi?”

“Bicyclists have apps on their phones for maps,” Denk said. “Without broadband, it is a hindrance.”

And rural businesses such as gift shops, quirky restaurants and local attractions can be found by tourists if the Internet is working.

“We heard from a farmer in Erie County who has do drive an hour with a thumb drive to take his financial information to his accountant because he has no Internet at home,” Denk said.

There was a doctor who could not access patient records at home and schoolchildren who have no Internet service at home to do homework research.

Gov. Tom Wolf reacted after the report was released with a plan to improve Internet access.

“Broadband is as essential in today's society as electricity. Not having broadband limits your ability to do business, find a job, access information, and so much more,” Wolf said in a prepared statement. “Our lack of broadband access keeps children from accessing online assignments and homework, and deters businesses from moving to our state.”

Wolf, a Democrat, has proposed funding high-speed Internet access projects as part of his four-year, $4.5 billion Restore Pennsylvania infrastructure plan. The proposal, offered in January, would be funded with a severance tax on natural gas taken from Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale.

Wolf has pressed the Republican-controlled General Assembly each year to pass some version of a gas severance tax but it has never gained traction.

©2019 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.