Rural Pa. demands broadband access; providers cite logistical difficulties

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania hosted a public hearing in Tioga County on Thursday, hearing from providers and consumers about the lack of broadband access in rural areas.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania hosted a public hearing in Tioga County on Thursday, hearing from providers and consumers about the lack of broadband access in rural areas.

Dr. Robert Gillio is in charge of telemedicine at J.C. Blair Hospital in Huntingdon county.

But he has no internet access at home.

“I can’t get Comcast at my house, two miles from the hospital,” Gillio said. “I want to log in at home and help? I got to drive to the damn hospital to log in to help my patient with telemedicine.”

Gillio, the hospital’s medical director for population health and clinical innovations, said he requested service from a provider after moving to Huntingdon, but was told it’d take $100,000 to have his neighborhood wired.

The doctor is not alone. Gillio is one of 800,000 Pennsylvanians that lack access to high-speed broadband internet according to the Federal Communications Commission, an issue for six percent of the state. The majority, like Gillio, are from rural Pa.

Dr. Robert Gillio (left) is in charge of telemedicine at J.C. Blair Hospital in Huntingdon county. He testified on the need for broadband access.
Dr. Robert Gillio (left) is in charge of telemedicine at J.C. Blair Hospital in Huntingdon county. He testified on the need for broadband access.

Gillio shared his story in testimony at a public hearing hosted by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania in Tioga County on Thursday.

“Many of us just assume that with a touch of the finger we can connect to the internet and connect to the world,” said Barry Denk, director of the center. “That’s not always the case in parts of rural Pennsylvania.”

Similar to other problems facing rural areas in the state, the lack of access to broadband results from geographic isolation and low population density.

But finding a solution to this problem has become especially pressing as high-speed internet has become  a necessity that provides access to healthcare, business and education.

A panel of representatives from the Wellsboro Area School District, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, local businesses and community groups testified to this effect at the hearing, detailing that technology has changed the way people work, and internet has become a crucial component.

As chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, State Senator Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming County) hopes the hearing will provide the legislature with information to find “unique ways of dealing with the challenges of geography and isolation.”

Barry Denk (center) and Sen. Gene Yaw (right) heard from providers and consumers.
Barry Denk (center) and Sen. Gene Yaw (right) heard from providers and consumers.

The FCC’s broadband estimates may actually undersell the extent of the issue, Denk noted. According to the FCC, if one person in a census block receives access to broadband, the service would be considered accessible to the entire block. Denk said a better estimation is one of the agency’s priorities.  

Broadband providers currently serving the state’s rural areas say it’s costly to build and maintain infrastructure in areas that are geographically isolated. Even when the facilities are established, the low population density keeps the price high.

Blue Ridge Communications serves 15 counties in Pennsylvania. Some of the counties have a population of about 40 people per square mile. In his testimony, Thomas Freeman, general manager of the company, asked for more government incentives for private investments, as well as greater regulatory certainty.

Governor Tom Wolf introduced the Pennsylvania Broadband Initiative last month, offering incentives to private providers to invest in rural Pennsylvania. But one of the providers at the hearing said the program’s requirement to provide download speeds of 100 Mbps was too high. Currently, the FCC’s definition of broadband is a download speeds of 25 Mbps and upload speeds of 3 Mbps.

Mark Smith, executive director of Wolf’s broadband initiative team, said they set the 100 Mbps threshold after consulting with many providers, and that the administration wants to encourage high performance.

Dr. Brenda Freeman, superintendent of the Wellsboro Area School District, said about 30 percent of the district’s students don’t have access to broadband.

“We want every one of our students in the district, when they go home at night, and mom and dad say, ‘What did you do at school today?’—  instead of the typical response, they say, ‘Let me show you,’” Freeman said. “That can only be possible with allowing every one of our students to have access to internet at home.”

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