Pennsylvania Regional Leaders Weigh In on Push for Broadband

Over half of respondents to a recent survey felt residents, government and private industry of the state need to act quickly to implement high-speed Internet infrastructure in rural areas.

by Sarah Paez, Centre Daily Times / April 22, 2019

(TNS) — The federal government should be doing more to provide broadband access to rural areas in Pennsylvania, according to a survey of regional leaders this month.

Conducted with reader input by the Centre Daily Times, the survey found a need for more money from government, less reliance on stopgap measures and quick action to solve the rural broadband crisis. Fourteen leaders chosen by the CDT received the questionnaire, asking how broadband can best be provided to rural areas and when should citizens push for it.

The respondents, including officials in higher education, government, health care and the nonprofit sector, are part of the Pennsylvania Influencer project — a monthlong effort by the CDT, its parent company McClatchy and the Knight Foundation to spur discussion around the state’s rural broadband access.

More than 90 percent of respondents to the survey — the last of three — said the federal government needed to contribute more resources, funding or planning to rural broadband expansion efforts.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] needs to step up their game,” wrote Norman Kennard, chair of broadband-related issues for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. “The FCC’s broadband subsidy programs ship dollars out of [Pennsylvania] in favor of the Midwest and Alaska. In 2016, the last year for which data is available, the 20% universal service surcharge on every customer’s phone bill generated $390 million on Pennsylvanians’ phone bills, of which only $190 million was returned to Pennsylvania. Several years ago, the PAPUC petitioned the FCC for a greater return and was denied.”

Some respondents said broadband infrastructure could be rolled out in a manner similar to the rural electrification drive in the 1930s. Curt Coccodrilli, state director for United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development, pointed out that Congress has already put money toward unserved and underserved rural areas using USDA’s Rural Utilities Service program.

While most felt the government could do more, at least a third of respondents emphasized that public-private partnerships were essential in rolling out broadband infrastructure quickly.

Many also felt state and local governments should try to use already-existing infrastructure to achieve the goal of universal broadband connectivity.

“I think the state/local government should look at the ‘low hanging’ fruit to see where installing fiber optic networks might be a little easier in some locations than others,” wrote Denise Sticha, executive director of Centre County Libraries. “Look at where fiber already is, and move it out to areas that are slightly more dense or have a stretch of homes along a road.”

5G cellular networks and balloon-based aerial networks have been marketed by telecommunications providersand the FCC — as a solution for getting broadband to rural areas with challenging topographies. But some felt like large investments in infrastructure are needed up front.

“5G technologies are 99% marketing hype and 1% snake oil — anyone who thinks this is going to bridge the digital divide is either incredibly naive or worse,” wrote Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications expert at Penn State. “The fact remains — major new investment in open access fiber networks are an essential intervention — one that is expensive, but easily pays for itself over time.”

Over half of respondents felt the residents, government and private industry of Pennsylvania need to act quickly to implement high-speed Internet infrastructure in rural areas of the state.

“Each day that goes by without advancing this goal (of rural broadband connectivity) is one more day that we and our economy suffer,” wrote Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania Grange. “Our children, our senior citizens, our emergency services and many more suffer. We need to push for achieving the goal every day.”

Margaret Gray, administrator for Centre County government, and Michael Kubit, Penn State’s vice president for information technology and chief information officer, did not complete the survey.

This is the last survey the CDT conducted with the 14 “Influencers” leading up to the Pennsylvania Priorities Summit: Focus on Rural Broadband Crisis on Wednesday at The State Theatre in State College. Register at bit.ly/Pennpriorities to join the CDT and its panel of Influencers for a discussion of challenges and solutions related to the rural broadband crisis.

This series was produced with financial support from the Knight Foundation. The Centre Daily Times maintains full editorial control of this work.

©2019 the Centre Daily Times (State College, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.