Researchers begin 11-month study of rural Pennsylvania broadband access

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team led by a Penn State faculty member has started an 11-month study of broadband access in rural Pennsylvania, an endeavor that amounts to a fact-finding mission that could impact hundreds of thousands of residents of the Commonwealth.

High-speed broadband connections can provide a valuable communications and information lifelines for agriculture, education, healthcare, tourism and more. During the study, the researchers hope to determine the amount of high-speed access that residents of rural areas of Pennsylvania have, produce corresponding maps to help legislators make informed decisions about the issue in the communities they serve, and provide insights about potential solutions to the problem-based previous models of success.

“We’re looking for facts, things we can test and verify. It’s important, because as so many residents of rural areas in Pennsylvania know, when you lose connectivity you lose opportunities,” said Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. “In addition, some residents might never have those opportunities at all — putting them on the wrong side of the digital divide.”

Meinrath is a renowned technology policy expert who has been named to the Time Magazine “Tech 40” as one of the most influential figures in technology; to the “Top 100” in Newsweek’s Digital Power Index; and received the Public Knowledge IP3 Award for excellence in public interest advocacy.

Meinrath also co-founded Measurement Lab, a global online platform for researchers to deploy internet measurement tools that empower the public and key decision-makers with useful information about broadband connectivity.  

That online resource, known as the M-Lab, allows anyone to test the connectivity of their computer with a few simple clicks. M-Lab is used by the FCC to help define the official broadband speeds of the United States, and has set the standard for broadband data measurement. 

M-Lab will be a vital part of the study of rural broadband access in Pennsylvania because more than 5.1 million tests — including more than 740,000 in the past three months — have already been conducted in the Commonwealth since its inception in 2008. Meinrath said that data will provide a valuable baseline for the study that begins Feb. 1 and stretches throughout the calendar year.

According to the research proposal, which was supported with a grant from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the research team will conduct the most extensive analysis and assessment of Pennsylvania’s broadband access ecosystem to date. Complementing the baseline data that already exists, additional tests in the coming months will produce information about the current reality of broadband access as well as data about changes over time. 

In addition, the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance serves as a partner on the project. It has developed the country’s foremost archive of case studies and independent research about innovative broadband models that have increased access to high-speed connectivity. Those proven approaches, combined with the results of the fact-finding mission and mapping in Pennsylvania, will identify areas where broadband access does not exist, define characteristics of communities with lower levels of access, and offer examples of successful intervention that might be successful in Pennsylvania’s communities. 

As communities throughout the Commonwealth battle the opioid crisis, seek ways to attract or broaden opportunities for business, and strive to educate the next generation of Pennsylvania residents, providing broadband access is vitally important.

“Accessibility and availability to reliable broadband enhances educational opportunities, increases economic development and can improve our emergency response efforts across the Commonwealth,” said state Sen. Gene Yaw (R-23), chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania Board of Directors. “Penn State’s study will provide valuable insight into broadband connectivity, assess our state’s broadband needs and help the state legislature as it considers optimal ways to expand broadband service throughout our rural communities.”

Organizations or researchers interested in collaborating with Meinrath on the study may contact him directly at sascha@psu.edu.

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Last Updated February 27, 2018