‘Some of the slowest internet in the state’

Photo from news.psu.edu Based on more than five million tests, only the areas in green meet the FCC’s minimum guideline for broadband speed.

It will surprise no one in Warren County that internet speeds in rural Pennsylvania lag far behind national expectations.

In a Thursday story in the Philadelphia Inquirer highlighting the survival of Family Video in Warren in what has become a dying industry nationwide, the Inquirer cited a Penn State study that found that Warren County “had some of the slowest internet in the state, falling below the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) minimum for ‘broadband upload speed’ of 3 to 5 Mbps.”

The FCC defines broadband as “speed of at least 25 Mbps download and at 3 Mbps upload,” according to Pennsylvania’s Broadband Initiative, whether via fiber optic cable, DSL or a cable modem.

The state says that over 650,000 Pennsylvanians don’t have access to high-speed internet that meets those criteria.

According to a November release from Penn State, a year-long rural broadband study determined that “few residents of the Commonwealth have access to even the FCC-mandated minimum for measuring internet availability and speed….”

“The evidence is absolutely compelling,” Penn State Professor Sascha Meinrath said in the release. “When you look at our data visualization map – which documents areas of Pennsylvania where the median measured broadband speed meets the FCC’s minimum speed for broadband connectivity – it becomes clear that under 10 percent of the state meets the minimal requirement. That’s just an absolute travesty.”

But Meinrath, an expert in technology policy, doesn’t paint an entirely grim picture.

“The good news is that because we are compiling an overwhelming evidentiary trail there is a general acceptance that we’ve put our finger on a very important and real phenomenon – one that we can begin to address,” he said. “Nobody’s out there saying these hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tests are wrong.”

According to the release, Meinrath has co-founded Measurement Lab, “a global online platform for research to deploy internet measurement tools” that are used, in part, “by the FCC to help define the official broadband speeds of the United States, and has set the standard for broadband data measurement.”

Part of that effort includes the Pennsylvania Broadband Mapping Initiative at pa.broadbandtest.us where the public can run speed tests of their internet connections that will also be included in the researcher’s efforts.

The study was supported by a grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and “is meant to equip legislators and other policymakers with scientifically rigorous documentation of the true state of broadband connectivity across Pennsylvania.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai actually called for the broadband speed minimums to be raised in a November 2018 blog post.

“(W)e’ll continue to pursue our goal of closing the digital divide with a measure to help connect some of America’s hardest-to-reach communities,” he wrote. “Here’s how. The FCC administers what is known as the Universal Service Fund, or USF. You pay into the USF through your phone bill, typically with a line-item called a “universal service fee.” The USF has several programs aimed at helping close the digital divide. This includes what we call our high-cost program, which subsidizes rural-focused carriers called rate-of-return carriers as they build broadband networks in some of the most difficult-to-serve parts of our country.”

Measures to boost efficiency in that program will be part of the FCC’s mission, Pai wrote.

Last September, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the completion of the first phase of the Pennsylvania Broadband Initiative “which will help deliver broadband access to 9,236 currently unserved rural Pennsylvanians. The incentive program ensures homes and businesses in various areas within Erie, Crawford, Potter, Tioga, Mercer, Lycoming, and Bradford counties will have broadband access of at least 100 Mbps by no later than June of 2022.”

“Lack of quality internet access means businesses are not able to market themselves and conduct business online, kids miss out on learning opportunities and healthcare facilities cannot share information with specialists,” according to the initiative’s website. “The Governor’s Office of Broadband Initiatives will work to bridge the digital divide making Pennsylvania a better place to work, do business and live.”

Meinrath said in the PSU release that the discrepancy between advertised and actual speeds has been significant – concluding that people in rural areas pay more for less.

“It’s not just a little different,” he said. “It appears that the more rural areas have a larger difference between advertised and actual broadband speeds than urban locations. In some locales, the discrepancy between actual and advertised speeds are an order of magnitude difference or larger. And if you’re this underserved or without internet access, you’re just not going to be a viable part of the 21st-century economy.”

He views investment as the answer – access will pay for itself by alleviating expenses that the lack of connectivity creates, per the release.

“Marginal broadband connectivity is a Commonwealth-wide problem,” he said. “My hope is we can get people to agree that we’re all in this together and implement solutions starting immediately.”