Penn State represented at Pennsylvania 'influencers' summit on rural broadband

May 17, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Following a month of reporting on the rural broadband crisis in Pennsylvania, the Centre Daily Times and its parent company, McClatchy, invited experts from across the state to discuss potential solutions last month. Penn State was well-represented, providing three of the 14 experts.

The event, which was supported by the Knight Foundation and held at the State Theatre in downtown State College, opened with remarks from Gov. Tom Wolf. He suggested imposing a severance tax on natural gas in order to pay for extending broadband across the state.

“We can’t afford to wait 20 years to get to broadband," Wolf said.

The dimensions and depth of the problem were then discussed by the first panel, which included Sascha Meinrath, Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State. Meinrath recently led a yearlong study on broadband access in Pennsylvania that found that only a small proportion of the state’s residents meet the Federal Communication Commission's minimum connectivity speed.

He and other panelists argued that this lack of access has created a “digital divide,” which negatively affects rural communities in many ways, including health outcomes, educational attainment and small business growth.

“[When] we invest in critical infrastructure, society as a whole benefits, and those investments easily pay for themselves,” Meinrath said. “It is time that we move broadband into that same category — as roads or electrical grids — and make a major priority [of] and investment of public money into ensuring universal, affordable web access.”

Michael Kubit, Penn State’s vice president for Information Technology and chief information officer, was on a second panel that explored potential private sector solutions. Kubit and other panelists agreed that the private sector will need a basic infrastructure “to plug in to” in order to extend broadband access to rural areas. He also noted that there are new, promising technologies that should be explored for use in rural areas, including TV White Space.

Penn State Director of Local Government and Community Relations Charima Young was part of the final panel, which considered public-sector solutions. With a background in public-sector work, Young brought up practical concerns around making broadband a publicly funded utility, including the need to set and regulate standards for any private company involved in providing that utility.

The other panelists came from a wide range of backgrounds and industries, including libraries, school districts, businesses and health care systems. Many partial solutions were discussed, including establishing broadband service through rural electric cooperatives and partnerships that would allow private broadband providers to use county-owned towers.

However, many speakers also emphasized the need to elevate and extend the conversation beyond the event, so that more ideas can be brought forward and discussed.

Last Updated May 17, 2019