Faculty member's research shows broadband disconnect for many in Pennsylvania

June 04, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — He’s neither a cartographer nor an engineer, but one Penn State researcher’s work could help Pennsylvania elected officials and policymakers set the direction to create vital infrastructure that will serve millions of residents of the commonwealth — and beyond — in fields such as agriculture, education, health care and more, for years to come.

Sascha Meinrath, the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, produced a 108-page report — with more than 1,200 accompanying maps broken down by county, legislative districts and ZIP code — as the result of his yearlong effort studying broadband access in the state.

The work was funded by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, and Sen. Gene Yaw, chairman of the board for the center, cited the importance of Meinrath’s “landmark” efforts.

“No one can deny the importance of high-speed connectivity in today’s global society,” Yaw said. “As we’ve heard over the past few years, many residents in Pennsylvania do not have quality access to broadband and are missing out on economic, educational, health care and recreational opportunities.

“This research mapped out the levels of actual connectivity speeds that Pennsylvanians experienced while participating in a broadband test," said Yaw. "The maps produced from these tests show that a digital divide in Pennsylvania is real, and that connectivity speeds are substantially slower in our rural counties.”

The maps may be found at https://pa.broadbandtest.us. In addition, any visitor to the site may test the speed of their internet connection.

The more than 15 million tests that served as the foundation of the Meinrath’s research showed a significant portion of the state did not meet FCC-mandated levels of broadband access, defined as 25 megabits per second download speed and 3 megabits per second upload speed. In fact, the 2018 data found no county in Pennsylvania where at least 50 percent of the populace received broadband connectivity as defined by the FCC.

Meinrath said broadband access represents an everyday issue for residents of the commonwealth — especially those in 48 of the 67 counties designated as rural. His research showed the disparity between access for those in rural and urban areas was significant and growing.

Specifically, the divide between actual speed test data and speeds reported by the FCC is greater in rural areas of Pennsylvania than urban areas, according to the report. Longitudinal data spanning multiple years show that discrepancy has grown dramatically over the past half-decade for rural communities — at a rate far surpassing that found in urban areas.

Meinrath credited the Center for Rural Pennsylvania for its leadership in addressing the problem.

“These results prove a problem exists. There’s no question. It’s a vital infrastructure need that must be addressed,” he said. “In the same way you can only go so fast on a gravel road, there’s only so fast you can go with the existing internet infrastructure — especially in rural America.”

Maps created by the FCC are not capturing the reality of the lack of access for millions of residents in the Commonwealth, Meinrath said. His research found the speeds shared on those maps were overstated by as much as 500 percent compared to median speeds measured by residents in those areas.

According to Meinrath, those national maps are among the references used to determine need and eligibility for grants and funding to address such problems. That makes the report — and the related website that gets updated every time someone completes a test — a valuable resource for legislators who want to seek funding to serve their constituents, and for policymakers who want information to plan approaches to the problem.

Meinrath said his research validates the need and provides information for those empowered to make such decisions. He stressed the importance of action, and the report outlined a variety of options for legislators to consider to address the issue.

“We created a compendium of useful information for exactly those kinds of decisions,” he said. “All options should be considered as part of a broader solution. At this point inaction itself is causing harm. You’re going to invest now or pay a lot later.”

Meinrath’s goal was to create a new “gold standard” for this type of research — a replicable and transparent methodology that can be generalized to other state and national efforts and represents a best practice for future efforts aimed at determining the extent of broadband access.

All data and information related to the research have been released and are available online. While the study was completed for Pennsylvania legislators, the tools Meinrath created contain information and related maps for the entire United States.

In addition, with an open platform and a methodology that is designed and peer-reviewed by the network science community, the mapping work and measurement of broadband access offer a best-practices approach for collecting more information and making informed decisions to address a U.S. infrastructure problem that stretches from coast to coast, said Meinrath.

Last Updated June 13, 2019