BY STACI WILSON
Susquehanna County Independent
The Pennsylvania House Majority Policy Committee, chaired by Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, held a hearing Thursday on rural broadband and internet access at a Susquehanna County site where few in the room even had cellphone service.
The hearing, held on the Elk Lake and Susquehanna County Career and Technology Center campus, offered up two panels of testimony. The first panel addressed the need for access; while the second panel – comprised of communication company professionals – talked about potential solutions to bring greater connectivity to rural Pennsylvanians.
Notably absent from the hearing was Frontier Communications, a primary telephone and internet provider in the northern tier counties represented at the hearing.
Rep. Tina Pickett (111th) said the provider, a leading phone and internet provider in the area, sent a message stating their ability to comment is limited due to “quiet period” restrictions of the upcoming CAF2 funding auction.
Pickett’s legislative district includes Dimock Twp., where the meeting was held. She said calls to her office grow daily from people looking for greater access to rural broadband service.
In addition to Pickett, other legislators taking part in the hearing included: Rep. Michael Peifer (139th); Rep. Jonathan Fritz (111th); Rep. Karen Boback (117th); Sen. Lisa Baker (20th); Rep. Aaron Kaufer (120th); and Rep. David Millard (109th).
Chris Brown, of the Central Bradford Progress Authority, outlined the need and challenges; the role of fiber optics; and also offered up a potential solution.
“The stakes could not be more serious, and unfortunately contributed to the Progress Authority’s interrelated concerns over inadequate public safety, disparate access to governmental and educational services, haphazard or non-existent recourse to telehealth and other personal and business activities of daily living, and lagging rural economic development,” Brown said. “Farmers and rural families struggle with inadequate service.”
Brown focused on the “middle mile” – the area between where there is an existing fiber network and the “last mile” network of business and residential users. The Progress Authority handles economic development activities in both Susquehanna and Bradford counties.
The lack of middle mile investment and increase in bandwidth demand, Brown said, create a multi-dimensional issue in rural communities.
According to Brown, previous subsidies only targeted internet service providers with the hope they would increase end user bandwidth. In Bradford County, however, support of the service providers without a timeline for middle mile investments has not resulted in vast improvements to broadband accessibility.
“The Progress Authority has been told by service providers that the speeds our businesses and residents realistically need cannot be met within a meaningful timeframe or at meaningful rates,” Brown said.
And, he continued, the federal and state minimum standard speeds do not hold up to what is realistically now required to handle the number of devices in businesses and households.
Fiber optics would be optimum to build out the “middle mile,” he told the legislators. “…fiber optics, and technology backed fiber, are and will continue to be the highest and best uses of funds for broadband development.”
The Progress Authority proposed establishing public-private partnerships to develop the ‘middle mile’ infrastructure. Bradford County has moved forward into the first phase of a three part $10 million project called the “Bradford County Open Access Network.”
Susquehanna County has followed, authorizing $175,000 of county funds to be used as a match for an ARC grant to complete a study and plan.
His remarks also took a personal turn as he spoke about his seven-year-old daughter’s terminal illness. Abbi is cared for at home through the use of home nursing and technology. The equipment is WiFi enabled and can be read by her medical team from their offices.
After a two month hospitalization, Brown and his wife were only able to bring Abby home because of the technology.
“While her challenges and prognosis are difficult, our daughter is still a seven-year-old girl at heart and she had a strong desire to attend school and have friends like her twin sister,” Brown said. Attending school was not possible, but through the use of a robot that stays in the classroom, Abby is able to enjoy the classroom experience through the use of a Ipad she controls at home.
“The only way this was possible was because of adequate broadband internet services,” Brown said.
After a move to a new home where cable internet service was not an option, Brown had to install a DSL bonded line into the family’s new home. “We were fortunate to be near one of the few telecommunication cabinets in our county that is actually fed by fiber and not copper,” he said. “If we were not near this cabinet, we would not have had adequate internet service to run her medical equipment or her robot technology.”
In addition to Brown, testimony was also heard from Laurel Mueller, a Sullivan County small business owner; Loren Stone and Brad Adleman, of Endless Mountains Health Systems; and Wayne County Commissioner Joseph Adams.
“There were many unkept promises,” said Laurel Mueller, a small business owner from Sullivan County. Her Soil Services business located to outside of Forksville in 2000 so she and her husband could be closer to aging parents.
The business was sold a commercial DSL plan of 6 megabits per second (mbps), with a minimum speed of 1.5 mbps. But, she told the legislators, they routinely could not get speeds past .5 mbps.
“I would have to drive an hour to Williamsport to do upgrades,” Mueller said. She also said they could not upload to use cloud storage. “We can’t get data in or out.”
EMHS CEO Loren Stone said the shift to providing telehealth services for patients requires bandwidth that is either unavailable or too costly.
Adleman, EMHS Director of IT, said 32.9 percent of Susquehanna County lacks a broadband service provider, DSL service is unreliable, and there is limited cell coverage. The lack of available service, he said, affects the medical facility’s ability to meet federal teleheath requirements.
Adams said the lack of highspeed broadband in Wayne County is the top detriment to residents. He pointed out that the county was ranked 59th out of the 67 counties in the state for upload speed; and also 59th out of 67 in income.
Cost of highspeed service, he said, comes at a price four to five times higher than what consumers in urban and suburban areas pay. He said it was a deterrent to business development.
Adams also addressed the cost and regulations involved with bringing better service to the county.
Prior to the panel remarks, Elk Lake Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Cuomo said reliable access to the internet was critical to the school system and its students – the future employees and business owners.
Although he said the campus was located “in the middle of nowhere,” the district, along with the career and technology center are preparing students to work in jobs that don’t exist yet.
“We’re handcuffed by the lack of communication infrastructure,” he said. The lack of broadband internet and communications services, along with limited cell phone service “factors in to what we can do with our students to prepare them for the future. It’s difficult to prepare students for jobs outside (the area) because the infrastructure isn’t here.”
The second panel of communications service professionals included Brian Barno, of the Broadband Cable Assoc. of PA (BCAP); Frank Buzydlowski, of Verizon; and Jay Summerson, of Microsoft.
Barno addressed the costs associated with providers attaching to existing poles, saying often the poles don’t meet code.
He also noted the lack of return on investment to take broadband into some rural areas but noted BCAP was committed to providing service in smalltown, rural Pennsylvania.
While Buzydlowski focused on a future of wireless technology, Summerson said Microsoft was looking to develop television unlicensed “white space” technology – often referred to as “airband.” The company, he said, is looking for partners to make an investment with providers to offer the broadband service.
Legislators asked the panelists questions, some involving the cost of service to consumers and other questions of how to make building out networks more attractive to service providers.
Coming away from the hearing, Rep. Millard said, “There is promise. Technology marches on.”
Looking to the future Rep. Benninghoff asked, “In 10 years will it all be wireless? Will fiber and broadband be obsolete?”
“A variety of technology will be needed to solve the problem,” reassured Barno.”