Need for high-speed internet tops Pa. lawmakers’ agriculture agenda

Eight percent of Pennsylvania doesn't have broadband access.

In this file photo, Tony Pouliot demonstrates the goCrop app on his mobile photo in the cab of his combine on his farm in Westford, Vt. (Toby Talbot/AP)

In this file photo, Tony Pouliot demonstrates the goCrop app on his mobile photo in the cab of his combine on his farm in Westford, Vt. (Toby Talbot/AP)

State lawmakers on the Agriculture Committee took advantage of the Farm Show‘s presence in Harrisburg this week, and convened in a back room of the complex to discuss their top priorities with Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding.

One of their primary focuses didn’t have to do with farming, exactly; rather, with making sure rural communities aren’t held back by bad internet access.

In cities and suburbs, high speed broadband internet is typically a given.

But Representative Pam Snyder said in her rural district in Pennsylvania’s southwestern corner, it’s often a luxury — and that can profoundly affect the people living there.

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“I have all or part of eight school districts. Three of those school districts are challenged by not having access to high-speed internet at home. And not only that, but not having access to cell phone service,” she said.

Snyder, a Democrat, said there is no partisan divide on the issue.

But she noted, it’s still tough to get anything done.

Mark Critz, who directs the Wolf Administration’s Rural Development Council, said the problem is resources; Pennsylvania is big and has tricky, mountainous topography, and broadband infrastructure is expensive.

Right now, the state is largely limiting its broadband work in rural areas to small, localized projects. But Critz said the problem won’t get solved in the short-term without some sort of statewide initiative.

He said hypothetically, the venture would have to rely heavily on federal grants — but that the commonwealth should chip in as well.

“If we’re not talking about putting some skin in the game, we’re on a long road to accomplish this,” he said.

Right now, about eight percent of Pennsylvania doesn’t have broadband access, which makes it the 12th best-connected state, according to wireless internet tracker Broadband Now.

But Vince Phillips, with the farming advocacy group Pennsylvania State Grange, said that doesn’t mean much for rural Pennsylvanians who aren’t seeing improvements.

“We’re getting near kind of a crisis point,” he said. “Pennsylvania farmers cannot participate in the world market because they can’t talk to the world market. Pennsylvania students coming from rural areas are functionally — I hate to say deprived, but I can’t think of another word to describe it.”

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at accelerating broadband connection in rural areas.

Though it doesn’t include funding, the state lawmakers and others at the Farm Show meeting said they’re encouraged by it.

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