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Rural Penn. Hopes Infrastructure Bill Closes Broadband Gap

No matter their political views, rural Pennsylvanians see the federal infrastructure bill as a potentially great development for their communities. Otherwise, the business case for their Internet may never develop.

a digital rendering of high-speed internet
Shutterstock/FlashMovie
(TNS) — The Landes family like living off the map. But they hate living offline.

Their home here in central Pennsylvania's Mifflin County is surrounded by lush green cornfields, with views of forests and mountains in the distance, but their connection to the Internet has been a never-ending buffering wheel.

If 9-year-old Angel tried to play Minecraft while her twin brother, LJ, watched Trolls, both connections froze. During the school year, it was hard to keep up with virtual classes and LJ's speech therapy.

"It was just horrible," said Jason Landes, 43. "I called every Internet provider, and everybody said, 'We cannot service that house.'"

Theirs is one of the only homes within a six-mile radius, and it just wasn't cost-effective for companies to build the necessary infrastructure. Until an upgrade last week, the Landeses were one of 29% of households in Mifflin County without access to high-speed Internet, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates.

About one in five Pennsylvania households doesn't have a broadband Internet subscription, with many rural counties having low coverage.

Now broadband could get a historic investment through the infrastructure bill making its way through Congress. Pennsylvania could receive $100 million to expand broadband infrastructure and subsidize service and devices for families who have access but can't afford it, such as low-income families in Philadelphia.

In rural areas, the issue is also structural — there simply isn't enough population density to incentivize setting up the pipes and towers needed.

The bill, which cleared the Senate with bipartisan support, faces an uncertain future in the House, where it's caught in broader partisan and intraparty fights.

For many people living without high-speed Internet in rural areas, broadband access isn't a political issue. More money to get people online could significantly change lives.

But don't expect it to change political views.

"The digital divide doesn't care what party you're in or what area of the country you live in," said Amy Huffman, policy director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. "It impacts everyone and therefore it impacts all of our lawmakers, no matter what side of the aisle."

The Landeses upgraded their connection through a new provider last week. It's working great, Jason Landes said. But he's not thinking about any politician or political party when he's watching NCIS or helping his kids video-call family.

"I'm not political," said Landes, who works at a cabinet-making company. "I don't vote ... But if they're agreeing everybody should have Internet, well, yeah, absolutely."

While there's some disagreement over how to pay for broadband and whether towns should provide their own public service, there's no disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about broadband's importance or finding ways to fund it.

"You're not going to, in a cost-effective way, lay fiber to every home, every farm, every community," said State Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre) the head of the Pennsylvania Senate, who has worked on the issue for years. "You have to identify a pot of money ... to help build a network with a provider."

The need to accelerate broadband expansion became even clearer during the pandemic. Students struggled to log on to remote classes from home, said Brice Clapp, who taught science at Mifflin County High School.

"Four kids are sharing one computer" or connection, he said. "And they couldn't all be online at the same time."

Clapp had trouble teaching from home, where his wife, a therapist, needed to see clients online. Their connection couldn't handle both of them at once, so he drove to the empty school to get online to teach.

Clapp said he'd been in a years-long battle trying to get high-speed broadband, "just begging people, basically saying, 'Look, I know we live out in the middle of nowhere, but I'll pay whatever you want for it.'"

A county over, George Hazard tried to keep his Juniata County winery afloat from a home office without a solid connection.

His four sons, ages 13 to 20, also struggled.

"When your kids — successful kids, hardworking kids — cannot do their homework or talk to their friends or watch television ... and you can't communicate with the rest of the world, it's a major, major problem," Hazard said.

Hazard benefited from a public-private partnership between the Juniata County Commissioners and SEDA-COG, an economic development organization, to help about 100 families get high-speed Internet. The program was funded by more than $500,000 in state and federal dollars. Unlike the DSL services that often dropped connections, the provider the county used, Centre WISP, runs a fiber cable to fixed wireless towers that beam high-speed Internet to customers for miles.

"The infrastructure bill is a great opportunity to continue what has been started here, to bring it to the last mile, so to speak," said Republican Juniata County Commissioner Alice Gray.

Local and state funding has recently ramped up, said David Gibbons, who owns Centre WISP. And if the infrastructure bill passes, it could reach unprecedented levels.

"What we're seeing right now creates a once-in-a-generation opportunity — very similar to building interstate highways or electrifying the country," Gibbons said. "But we need a significant amount of funding to deliver the kind of broadband that these areas need in a time frame that makes a difference."

When Centre WISP connected Hazard's family in May, their quality of life changed overnight. His sons could once again chat with friends. The family had fewer arguments over whose turn it was to go online.

More infrastructure money could mean more stories like his, which politicians are sure to use for political gain. Hazard doesn't think that will work ― not in Juniata County.

"We come from a very conservative area, and it's very rural, but infrastructure in general is not a political issue," Hazard said. "It doesn't matter who's in office, if your roads don't work, everybody's mad. If your Internet doesn't work, everybody's mad."

At the Juniata County Library, there's a wait list for the 25 hot spots the library lends people to take home. Others come in to go online, a trip Mark Kahler makes several times a week to listen to music and chat with friends on Facebook about politics.

"I'm a Trumper," said Kahler, a Navy veteran who lives in Lewistown. Former President Donald Trump also talked about broadband expansion, Kahler noted. So an infrastructure bill that could give him Internet at home wouldn't change that view: "I'm all for that. But I'm not for Biden."

Kahler used to piggyback off a McDonald's signal near his house, but that hasn't worked for a while. Then he split the cost of broadband with his neighbor but found his decade-old laptop had trouble connecting.

For many people, it's not just a lack of access but an inability to afford the devices to get online. The infrastructure bill's $100 million includes money to subsidize laptops, iPads, and other devices, along with service costs.

Vincent Giordano, director of the library, hopes the funding helps an area where the population is declining in part, he thinks, because of lack of Internet.

"It's an aging area, young people don't move here. People who come don't stay," Giordano said. "I think that also contributes to people staying set in their ways."

A few miles from the library, Darryl Best pulled over in his gold pickup truck to give directions to a lost reporter in Honey Grove. "There's no cell service here," he explained of the frozen GPS signal. Best said his Internet isn't much better: "It was throwin' a fit this morning."

Best, 71, would love to see money trickle down to expand high-speed Internet to where he lives. In these tree-covered hills and valleys, it's rarely a one-size-fits-all solution. He's already a fan of President Joe Biden, but he doesn't see the infrastructure bill shifting the views of his mostly conservative neighbors.

"People's minds [are] mostly made up," Best said. "Plus, who knows how long it takes to see that money. Things seem to work slowly around here."

©2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.