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Push on for rural broadband access

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Your smartphone loses a signal during an important call. A dead zone keeps you from sending information for an important deadline.

These might be minor inconveniences in an era when smartphones have become ubiquitous in business. But what if you couldn’t even get a good broadband connection on your desktop computer? What if your modern equipment depended on strong GPS signals but the technology only worked intermittently?

Such issues are playing out nationwide, including in large pockets of Pennsylvania, which is spurring a push to get broadband service in every corner of the state. Some estimates place the number of Pennsylvanians without broadband services at more than 800,000, with about 250,000 of them in what would be considered urban or suburban communities.

“It’s affecting everybody, not just farmers,” said Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania State Grange, based in Cumberland County. Broadband connectivity has become a priority of the Grange, which has advocated for farmers and rural residents since 1873.

Campbell is part of a group statewide trying to ensure that every Pennsylvania resident has access to broadband service. The goal is “100 percent coverage” by 2022, said Mark Smith, who was hired by Gov. Tom Wolf to put a plan in motion.

“That’s the goal, and it’s a very ambitious goal,” said Smith, who has been executive director of Broadband Initiatives for Pennsylvania since January. “But we want to set our standards high.”

If you live in a community where broadband service isn’t a given, then the ability to tap modern business tools is difficult, if not impossible. That would include retailers and small businesses that need high-speed internet to market products and to communicate with customers, Campbell said. Farmers, meanwhile, might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on modern field equipment, only to find out that the machines don’t work properly because GPS-based location tools cannot function fully, if at all, Campbell said.

“The farmer might as well have bought a tractor that is 15 or 20 years old,” he said.

The lack of functionality becomes an environmental issue because newer computer programs can pinpoint how much pesticide or herbicide to spread in a field, cutting back on the waste that comes from old machines, which simply spread chemicals from start to finish. The reduction means fewer chemicals end up in groundwater, the Chesapeake Bay or other bodies of water, said Campbell and state Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill.

Phillips-Hill, a Republican, represents portions of York County. She had noticed that parents in areas of southern York County were bringing their children back to schools at night and parking in the parking lot at night so that students could get broadband access. Her observations drove home that broadband access is a suburban issue preventing communities from reaching their full potential.

Campbell pointed out that modern medical treatment – online telemedicine visits with doctors, for example – could save rural residents time and money, if they had the broadband to take advantage of those technologies. A long-time resident of Perry County, Campbell has seen firsthand when residents spend half a day traveling from remote areas of the county to the Harrisburg area for a 15-minute doctor appointment.

“If they had access to broadband, they could save six to eight hours in a day,” he said.

Phillips-Hill drafted a package of proposals to address the issues, along with state Rep. Pam Snyder, a Democrat who serves parts of Fayette, Greene and Washington counties.

Phillips-Hill said more than 25,000 people in York County have problems with access. Later this month, a broadband caucus intends to meet to go over what to do. Among the proposals from her and Snyder is to inventory state assets to determine if there is a way to lease state towers or land or other facilities so that broadband can be expanded.

Smith and Campbell said the state has been working to leverage about $35 million in state Department of Transportation funds to gain access to federal dollars through the Federal Communications Commission. Announcements on those efforts could be made later this month, Smith said.

Campbell said the issues are complex.

“There is not going to be one pill that is the cure,” he said, adding that is why leaders are working with people in the private sector, as well as government and nonprofits, to find solutions. Cable and phone companies might go into a rural community but just so far. Beyond a certain point, the economies of scale make investment in infrastructure difficult, he said.

“No one wants to go to what we call ‘the last mile,’” Campbell said, “because there are only one or two people in that last mile.”

That means that government funding and intervention is critical, much like it was when telephone and electric wires were installed generations ago, he said. A lot of people are hoping that a federal infrastructure bill – long discussed but not yet approved in Congress – will include money to expand broadband access nationwide.

Each state has its own difficulties, much of it involving terrain. It is easier to erect towers in flat states of the Midwest but much more difficult to get broadband to mountainous states in the West, or even hilly rural Pennsylvania, Campbell said. Ensuring access is going to require creative solutions.

Betsy Huber, president of the national Grange in Washington, D.C., is part of an FCC task force studying the broadband questions. The main focus is on identifying barriers, determining where regulations might be hindering broadband expansion and defining incentives to encourage investment by the private sector, she said.

“The economics of getting it into the rural areas is definitely an issue,” Huber said. She agrees that multiple solutions are needed, and that funding will come from various sources, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and any broad-reaching infrastructure legislation, as well as from the states.

The hope is to use federal land and facilities – much like Pennsylvania is doing through an inventory of state facilities – to determine what can be tapped as resources. For example, a federal fire tower or water tower – or really any federal land or building – might be good places for infrastructure, she said. However, using federal resources has proven to be difficult.

“It should be made easier,” she said. “But it isn’t. And it seems to be even more difficult (getting the approval of the various federal agencies).”

She, too, said that the federal goal is “100 percent” broadband coverage nationwide.

“I am not sure that is possible when you think about the terrain, when you think about the physical limitations,” Huber said.

She added, however, that she would never underestimate American ingenuity.

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