ERNEST — As put by state Rep. Cris Dush, R-Brookville, it’s an area of lush forests and streams … and a broadband desert.
Dush was on hand as the state Senate Communications & Technology Committee conducted the first of four scheduled hearings on improving access to high-speed broadband internet in Pennsylvania Wednesday at Blue Spruce Park, an Indiana County recreational facility five miles north of downtown Indiana.
Before what at times was a standing-room-only audience, multiple topics were raised over more than two hours.
“I can’t think of a better place to hold this event,” said Indiana County Commissioner Rod Ruddock, who earlier this year called attention to the lack of service in the park. “We have no signal. In fact, as I was driving here today, I went to test it, to just get a read as to where we are with broadband here in this park (and my iPhone said), ‘Safari can’t open the page because your iPhone is not connected to the internet.’”
The retiring county commissioner was one of 11 witnesses giving testimony to the panel chaired by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and hosted by Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana.
“It was very thoughtful and helpful to me,” Pittman said after the hearing.
“The commonwealth is at a critical stage on the issue of broadband availability that calls for new policies and new thought processes driven by a renewed sense of urgency to bring high-speed broadband to all Pennsylvanians, whether in urban, suburban or rural areas,” Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner Norman J. Kennard said in prepared remarks as the opening witness.
“This is a statewide issue that needs to be resolved in order to compete with the non-rural areas and more importantly with other states,” said Chad Carrick, president and CEO of REA Energy Cooperative Inc. He’s worked with REA for 18 years “and trying to get broadband in Indiana and Cambria counties is something I personally have worked toward with local leaders for the past 12 years.”
“We can no longer continue to kick this can down the road,” said Sheri B. Collins, acting executive director of the Governor’s Office of Broadband Initiatives.
“As rural goes, so goes the commonwealth,” said Barry L. Denk, director of the Legislature’s Center for Rural Pennsylvania. “As much as we want Philadelphia to survive, we want Potter County to survive.”
Recently the center reported results of a yearlong research project that showed there isn’t a single county where at least 50 percent of the population received broadband connectivity — even in the largest counties. The center’s researchers drew on the Federal Communications Commission definition of “connectivity” when a median rate of 25 megabits download speed and three megabits upload speed is achieved.
Utilizing 2017 figures from the FCC, the researchers found Indiana County’s median speed — where half the users get faster internet, half slower — is just 4.7106 megabits.
Potter County is involved with Cameron, Clearfield, Elk, Jefferson and McKean counties as a designated local development district covered by the North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission.
NCPRPDC Director of Information Systems Edward Matts said the commission has been working for the past 10 years to close the digital divide in that region.
“We have used a grass-roots approach at finding the gaps in service,” Matts said in his prepared testimony. “Most of our network has been self-funded over the years. You need to build partnerships with the people and the communities to make this work.”
Last month, the North Central commission received $300,000 through support of state lawmakers in those six counties as well as the Wolf administration to deploy fixed wireless technology and provide broadband connectivity to unserved or underserved areas in the region.
More may be coming.
“We applied for an (Economic Development Administration) grant and it looks pretty good,” Matts said.
EDA is a federal agency that encourages its grantees throughout the country to develop initiatives that present new ideas and creative approaches to advance economic prosperity in distressed communities.
If NCPRPDC gets that EDA grant, Matts said, “We’re going to survey our six counties in every vertical asset, we’re going to go a step further and look for silos and water tanks, taller buildings, anything that sticks above the horizon.”
Ruddock recounted problems Indiana County has had.
“We took optic fiber and we strung the fiber between those tower sites so that they would then be accessible to a vendor coming in to carry that signal from those connected hubs that were there in the tower locations into the residences of the communities in which they passed,” Ruddock said.
“Because we were so restricted we did not have a lot of room to maneuver where those lines would go,” he said. “I think we have a line that goes north and swings toward Cherry Tree right now.”
On behalf of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, on whose board he has served, Ruddock said government and industry have to partner to make broadband availability a reality.
Indiana County officials are hoping to leverage a Keystone Communities Program grant of $500,000 announced by Pittman’s predecessor, Sen. Don White, as he was about to retire from office earlier this year.
The program administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development provided the funds to help extend broadband internet access to underserved rural, outlying areas of the county.
Among those in the audience was Byron G. Stauffer Jr., executive director of the Indiana County Office of Planning and Development, who appreciated the focus on Indiana County.
“It is a challenge and an opportunity,” Stauffer said.
Another member of the audience, ARIN Intermediate Unit 28 Executive Director James J. Wagner, sees a challenge in development of a next-generation regional wide-area network, providing a 10-gigabyte connection utilizing a fiber-optic system being provided by DQE Communications.
“We have a number of school (districts) up and running,” Wagner said. But four — Marion Center Area, Penns Manor Area, Purchase Line and United — won’t be tied in until the end of September.
Internet access has been a concern for Matts and NCPRPDC.
“My daughter goes to the Punxsutawney Area School District,” he recalled in his prepared testimony. “The school students are issued a laptop to use each school year. All homework is done on the computer and submitted to the teacher.”
That homework sometimes is done at a friend’s house, sometimes at a business with WiFi like the McDonald’s in Punxsutawney.
“Some of the schools in our area do not have broadband that the city schools have,” Matts said. “So the teachers are not able to use all the online content that is available.”
The question of who pays for broadband expansion, and how much, overshadowed much of the conversation. Indiana County Commissioner Sherene Hess, who was in the audience, hoped that costs would be distributed equitably.
“Some have compared the task of bringing broadband access to every Pennsylvanian to the challenge of bringing electricity to all Pennsylvanians not even a hundred years ago,” said Joseph H. Gerdes III, director of government relations for the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.
“Due to the miles between homes and businesses in rural Pennsylvania, cost is the most significant hurdle to clear when deploying broadband,” Pennsylvania Telephone Association President Steven J. Samara said in his prepared testimony. “We need to make a business case for the providers who are potentially in a position to offer these services.”
Verizon Director of State Government Relations Frank P. Buzydlowski said his company has made high-speed internet access available to all of Verizon’s landline customers in Pennsylvania, including Indiana County. However, he also noted that the number of landlines served by Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers in Pennsylvania dropped from 8.5 million in 2000 to 2.7 million in 2017.
Kris Gazsi, assistant director of the Local Government Commission, said he wanted to place rural broadband in the context of Pennsylvania municipal law.
“Inherently, local leaders are involved in the answer to the question: ‘Should access to a service be a part of the social contract extended to all residents paid from general taxpayer revenues or delivered only to participating ratepayers?” Gazsi said.
Others hearing testimony were committee Vice Chairman Scott E. Hutchinson, R-Venango; Minority Chairman Steven J. Santarsiero, D-Bucks; and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh, a 1979 Indiana University of Pennsylvania graduate who felt “it was important for me to hear” the viewpoints expressed over more than two hours of testimony.
Also at the table with the senators were Dush, whose district extends south from Jefferson County to Blue Spruce Park, and Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, whose district includes Indiana Borough, White Township and IUP.
Other public officials in the audience included Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, whose district includes Blacklick, Conemaugh and Young townships in Indiana County; and two supervisors from Rayne Township, where the park is located.
Phillips-Hill said her committee also will meet on Sept. 3 in Monroe County, Sept. 5 in Fayette County and on a date to be determined in Harrisburg.