Falling short

There isn’t a county in the state at 50% for median broadband speeds; Warren Co. slowest in region

Photo from The Center for Rural Pennsylvania study Download speeds by county from The Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s study on broadband access in Pennsylvania.

A year-long Penn State research project has concluded that there isn’t a single county in the Commonwealth where at least 50 percent of the population has access to FCC-defined broadband connectivity.

Sponsored by The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the study is based on over 11 million broadband speed tests that were completed across the state in 2018.

“The project goal was to comprehensively map the availability of fixed broadband services throughout the rural areas of Pennsylvania,” researchers concluded. “In essence, the project is ‘painting’ a pointillist-style map where each test is represented by a “dot” and collectively, these dots help us determine areas that may either have no connectivity or where no one ran a measurement test.”

They concluded that “efforts to bridge the digital divide have, thus far, fallen far short of official broadband speed goals; and while these efforts have improved connectivity for many, the divide between rural and urban areas may be growing…”

Locally, the test results — calculated by median download speed — show Warren County at the lowest in the region or 2.4641 Mbps.

Forest County is close 2.5770 Mbps while Erie (5.0086), McKean (4.1946), Crawford (4.3396), Venango (5.0681 and Elk (5.2478) all exceeded the median speed here.

The major findings of the report include:

¯ The FCC’s official maps show 100 percent broadband availability across the state.

¯ The speed tests collected “found that median speeds across most areas of the state did not meet the FCC’s criteria to qualify as a broadband connection.”

¯ That zero counties in the state have more than 50 percent population with access.

¯ Connectivity speeds were “substantially slower” in rural versus urban counties.

¯ That the “discrepancy between ISP’s self-reported broadband availability” and “the speed test results collected… has grown substantially in rural areas” which “may indicate a systematic and growing overstatement of broadband service availability in rural communities.”

“The Center for Rural Pennsylvania defines 48 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties as rural, with about 3.4 million Pennsylvanians living in rural counties,” the report states. “According to the FCC, many rural communities are particularly reliant upon cellular and other wireless providers as their main ISP vis-a-vis more urban constituencies.”

However, the authors note, many mobile services don’t meet the broadband definition either.

“Thus, claims of full broadband availability across Pennsylvania appear to be at odds with the on-the-ground broadband reality experienced by many Pennsylvania residents.”

The researchers also identified a significant gap in rural areas between advertised speeds and observed speeds.

“By not clearly showing the extent of the broadband divide, and by providing official assessments that are decreasingly accurate over time for rural America, U.S. government policy has, in effect, negatively impacted the economies of rural America by preventing many communities from being eligible for the very funding that would address the growing digital divides that they have faced.”

Researchers called for diverse solutions that “is likely to require support from the state government, local governments, private businesses and associations and so on.

“(I)f the goal is to encourage effective broadband buildout, entities should be empowered to select from the maximum number of funding and ownership models to best address their unique combination of challenges, assets, local Internet access providers, culture and other factors.”

And that buildout, they conclude, can have vast economic impacts for rural Pennsylvania.

“The opportunity costs of not providing communities with affordable access consist of very real impacts on their economic health,” they conclude. “Broadband connectivity is crucial for access to the modern economy, as well as for engagement in contemporary social, educational and political life.”