A Broadband Challenge

Incorporating online features into lesson plans isn’t just a flashy add-on anymore. It’s the future of education. Not so much for some teachers in the small and very rural Lakeland School District, located in northern Lackawanna County, north of Scranton.

Many teachers won’t take that chance because they can’t rely on the internet, said district technology director Jeffrey Price.

“You can lose your internet connection in a moment’s notice and everything grinds to a halt,” Price said. “It deters teachers from moving in that direction because they know some things can be derailed.”

More than 300 miles to the west in Erie County, Jerry and Kelly Port run a Waterford farm where they grow soybeans and Christmas trees, and put on seasonal hayrides, among other events. Yet one of their most trying tasks is transmitting files to their accountant. Most of the time, the Ports walk away from the internet buffering symbol and make the hourlong round trip to deliver documents to their Erie accountant.

Travel another 300 miles from Erie to southcentral Pennsylvania and you’ll find Val Kater, a retired psychologist from Chanceford Township in York County. She drives to the library four times a week to get on the internet because she can’t connect at home. Kater retains her license to practice. Recently, she said she was warned by the Department of State that this was the last year she could renew through snail mail.

At the age of 67, Kater said she feels like the lack of high-speed broadband access is squeezing her out of being an active member of society.

“Education, business and general contact as a citizen — it’s just eluding me at this point unless I’m sitting at the library, which is just ridiculous,” Kater said.

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Access to the internet is often thought of as a “great equalizer,” a tool that can lead the user to anything from obtaining an education or employment to connecting to social services or friends and family.

Rural areas are at a particular disadvantage regarding access to high-speed broadband. In Pennsylvania, 48 of the 67 counties are considered to be rural. Only about 27 percent of the state’s population live in rural counties, though. Of the 800,000 Pennsylvanians lacking access to high-speed internet, two-thirds are people living in rural areas. Therein lies the issue: Laying lines over vast amounts of land with relatively few people is not a profitable proposition for internet-service providers.

Price, Port and Kater have all been told at one time or another over the past several years that they’re out of luck.

“We’re the outliers, end-of-the-line folks,” Kater said.

That reality is unacceptable to Sascha Meinrath, a renowned technology policy expert who serves as the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. In February, Meinrath and partners launched a rigorous study to better understand internet access in the state.

Years ago, Meinrath co-founded the Measurement Lab, which produced the multimillion-dollar M-Lab tool that allows for easy testing of internet speed. Meinrath’s team will use the data already collected through the millions of M-Lab tests. He is also asking that the public, whether the users live in a rural or urban area, use the tool to further build Meinrath’s data sampling. He anticipates as many as a million more tests in the coming year, enough information to provide reliable data.

The study is supported with a $50,000 grant by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. Meinrath’s team will produce a report meant to equip legislators and other policymakers with the information they need to address the internet access concerns of rural constituents.

“This is aspirational, but our plan is to provide not just an overall assessment but hopefully also a district-by-district breakdown to let legislators not just know what’s going on in the state but also in their backyards,” Meinrath said.

The desire to amplify access to high-speed broadband is growing. In March, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive Program, establishing the Pennsylvania Office of Broadband Initiatives and offering $35 million in incentives to internet providers that invest in underserved areas. Wolf, in his announcement, said Pennsylvania ranks 27th among states for making broadband available.

Meinrath said he wants to move the needle for Pennsylvanians and create a framework for other states to evaluate and improve access to high-speed broadband.

“When legislators and key decision-makers have access to good data, they make smarter decisions,” the professor said.

‘We try to warn teachers ...’

Price has spent 15 years as technology director of the Lakeland School District, which has nearly 1,500 students attending two elementary schools and a junior/senior high school. Ironically, Price worked at an internet-service provider in Scranton before taking the position.

Lakeland was one of 10 rural school districts in Pennsylvania that reported needing bandwidth because their speeds are below 100 Kbps per student, according to EducationSuperHighway data. The standard for high-speed broadband is 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed; 100 Kbps is equivalent to 0.1 Mbps.

“The reality is we’re in the middle of nowhere. In an urban area, the greatest asset you have is competition,” Price said. “Now when you get up on top of a mountain like we are, your options are extremely limited. For one, there is no fiber.”

To get a fiber-optic connection — the fastest form of broadband — the lines would need to be custom run; Price said that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The district’s internet speed depends on the time of the day, the weather and the stress it’s under. If several students are asked to watch a YouTube video in class, it can eat up the bandwidth for the day, he said. This becomes most problematic for advanced classes, like the Project Lead the Way engineering and biomedical programs.

“We have to look at possibilities of what we can and can’t do. We try to warn teachers of that,” Price said.

The challenges at Lakeland School District don’t translate to all rural school districts, said James Wagner, executive director of the ARIN Intermediate Unit, a regional public school service agency covering Armstrong and Indiana counties northeast of Pittsburgh. For the schools in his region, he said internet access is not a problem. And “for a majority of students, it’s not an issue at home,” Wagner said.

Wagner takes issue with the concept that everyone needs access to high-speed broadband; students need the internet but most are accessing it through their cellphones. He said that while the Meinrath-led study is worthwhile, he hopes the researchers will also evaluate what internet infrastructure has already been paid for by taxpayers.

“We all have to, at some point, look at dwindling resources and we have to figure out how to allocate those resources, so I’m more concerned about everybody being able to have a minimum level of service than I am trying to figure out a way to have everybody have the best thing going,” he said. “I don’t know the answer. I just know that needs to be looked at as part of the discussion.”

Bandwidth for business

Sullivan County in northcentral Pennsylvania is 40 percent public forest and among its latest crowning achievements is that Loyalsock Creek was named the 2018 Pennsylvania River of the Year. With roughly 6,500 residents, the county is the second-least populous in the state. Outdoor recreation is the county’s bread and butter, and natural gas work is picking back up after a slowdown from high inventory and plummeting prices.

Florence Suarez is responsible for furthering the interests of area businesses as executive director of the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce. She can’t access the internet from her office. It’s not a huge problem for her, but she said county officials are recognizing that internet access is a key factor to keeping the economy afloat when recreation or other market-dependent businesses falter.

“For businesses to come in and flourish, and we hope we keep having that potential, they have talked about needing broadband recently,” Suarez said.

Mark Haas, economic development officer in the Sullivan County Planning Office, said county commissioners are trying to address a dearth of internet access. Haas said the lack of high-speed broadband access limits choices for the people who live there. If you want to homeschool your children, well, you can’t access online courses. If you want to telecommute, Sullivan County may not be the place for you. Without reliable internet access, “that limits their ability to make money away from the office while living here,” Haas said.

Jerry Port, the farmer from Erie County, said he hopes to see concrete action resulting from Meinrath’s study and the Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s commitment to educate lawmakers on the issue.

“You hear promises — this funding’s going in or this is going to happen — and that’s the frustrating part,” said Port, who testified about rural broadband service at an April hearing in Wellsboro hosted by the center. “You spend the time to try to get the stuff going. I’ve talked to my local representative for several years, and it’s always coming or it’s not quite yet but it will be. It seems like we’ve attempted to fund this type of stuff before but it never happens.”

Even more aggravating to the Ports is the fiber-optic line running through their property. “You can see it, but you just can’t get it,” he said.

The Ports just got DSL internet service at their home and Port Farms a year ago. Verizon could only offer its lowest speed. They pay $177 a month.

“One good thing is it’s unlimited, but the speed is very limited,” said Port, noting that satellite service was slow and charged overage fees.

Telehealth transformation

Tim Schoener is vice president and chief information officer at UPMC Susquehanna, a seven-hospital organization with 350 providers in central Pennsylvania. He has worked in IT for more than two decades.

“I rode that revolution of change of IT transforming health care,” he said.

Now, medical professionals use electronic medical records, picture archiving for radiology and telemedicine.

“Broadband access didn’t really mean much or matter much 20 years ago,” he said. “There was no need for it.”

Schoener, who earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Penn State in 1985, pointed to industry leader Kaiser Permanente to make the point. In 2015, the California-based health network saw more patients through telehealth than in person. To emulate this for patients in Pennsylvania’s rural areas would be invaluable, Schoener said. So far, state and federal grant funding has helped UPMC Susquehanna make progress. But, he said, “grant funding is drying up and being spread thinner. It’s going to become a problem.”

Rural counties have fewer physicians than urban counties, and the population is older. By 2040, it’s projected that 25 percent of rural Pennsylvania will be 65 or older. If health care providers in Pennsylvania can’t keep up now, Schoener said they won’t be ready when artificial intelligence takes over.

“AI is going to make decisions, perform analytics on data (and) will be part of common health care in the next few years,” he said, “and it takes broadband bandwidth.”

In rural northwestern Pennsylvania, the Dickinson Center is a nonprofit behavioral health facility serving patients throughout eight counties. Its medical professionals visit patients’ homes. During home evaluations, they update electronic medical records — at least they try to. Internet in the area is spotty and inconsistent. If the connection drops, as it often does, work can be lost. That poor connection can lead to errors and inconvenience for both the employee and patient.

“There could be continuity-of-care issues and, in rare cases, we do have delegates or crisis care workers determining if the person is in need of involuntary or inpatient care,” said Jennifer Dippold, the center’s communications and development director. “Access [to the electronic charts] would educate the health care worker more effectively.”

In an attempt to mitigate the problem, the Dickinson Center has invested about $10,000 in offline mobile applications.

Access, affordability and exclusion

Internet connectivity affects people at all stages of life. For Kater and Chuck Long, a new era of retirees who want to mix work with recreation, the lack of broadband excludes them from the daily grind more than they’d like.

Kater volunteers for human rights organizations and is leaving the door open to practice psychology. Long, 64, is an atmospheric scientist who earned a meteorology degree from Penn State. In 2010, he and his wife purchased property in the Black Moshannon State Park, about 18 miles from State College. Sometime next year, they hope to move into the retirement home they’re building in the park.

Sure, he isn’t worried about the internet when he envisions himself on the lake fishing for bass and bluegills. But he plans to do consulting work and would like to be able to stream a movie occasionally.

“It’s not going to change where we’re going to build,” he said. “It’s going to change our lifestyle.”

An internet service provider’s website warns Long that DSL internet would be excruciatingly slow.

“If we have to rely on DSL, we’re basically without communication to the outside world,” Long said. “That’s dangerous nowadays.”

Long is assuming that his only option for reliable internet is the satellite service HughesNet.

Kater cautions Long against making that assumption. HughesNet didn’t work out for her. She previously spent a full day navigating the application process and waiting for an installer, only to find it made no difference in terms of reliable internet access. She still takes at least one day a year to call internet providers and “fight the fight.” Her last daylong quest took place in November. She believes internet access matters and should be treated as a serious matter in communities across the state.

“It’s worthwhile using our funds to connect everybody,” Kater said, “just like it was worthwhile to connect everyone to electricity.”

Halle Stockton is the managing editor of Pittsburgh-based PublicSource (publicsource.org), a nonprofit in-depth and investigative news organization. She is a 2008 alumnae of Penn State with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at halle@publicsource.org and followed on Twitter @HalleStockton.

Last Updated June 28, 2018