A variety of potential solutions exist to address the widespread lack of broadband internet access, such as community cooperatives and “white space” technology, which delivers internet similar to that of 4G, according to 14 panelists who participated in discussions of the rural broadband crisis on Wednesday. The “Influencers Project” was hosted by the Centre Daily Times at the State Theatre in downtown State College.
“This is a critical infrastructure,” said Sascha Meinrath, a Penn State professor of telecommunications and a leading broadband researcher. “Without it, who’s not served? It’s the rural, the poor and the minority communities.”
Governor Tom Wolf gave opening remarks, saying when it comes to funding broadband connection, his proposed gas severance tax is the best solution.
Wolf, a Democrat, said Pennsylvania cannot keep lagging behind in broadband access. Under his Restore Pennsylvania initiative, a gas severance tax would enable the state to invest $4.5 billion dollars over a four year period, he said.
“I think that’s where the government can be helpful here and say, ‘This is a priority. This is how we can pay for this. This is actually something people really want,’” Wolf said.
But Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) called the Governor’s appearance in the area on Wednesday “more political than policy as evidenced by the lack of specifics.” Corman said Wolf’s broadband proposals are “half-baked” and will “not make even a dent” in the problem.
What most of the panelists, including Tom Charles of Mount Nittany Health, Denise Sticha of Centre County Libraries, Steve Samara of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association and Wayne Campbell of the Pennsylvania State Grange, could agree on was that broadband is costly and requires federal and state funding.
State and county officials said they intend to prioritize broadband infrastructure and look for grassroots solutions like community cooperatives.
Private providers said expanding broadband to rural areas is too costly, but there’s potential in exploring technological alternatives in delivering internet access.
Margaret Gray, county administrator for Centre County, says a focused collaboration among governmental agencies, private providers and the public is essential to changing the crisis.
“When you look at topography, densities of population and so forth, it’s difficult for the private sector to address return on investment, so I do think that the answer is a collaboration in the public and private combination,” Gray said.