Students are sitting in school parking lots hours before and after school begins to complete homework. Farmers are relying on slow dial-up connections to complete transactions.
These situations and more are the result of Pennsylvania’s lack of high-speed broadband access, according to testimony at a public hearing this week at Penn State’s Fayette campus.
The Federal Communications Commission estimated about 800,000 Pennsylvania residents don’t have access to high-speed internet, said Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, who chairs the Senate Communication and Technology Committee. But that number is likely in the millions because many connections don’t meet the national standards for high speed internet, she said.
Lack of broadband access is a problem for many industries, but the Senate hearing, the third of four, focused on education and agriculture.
Students in the commonwealth’s K-12 schools and colleges often cannot complete online assignments due to the lack of access, a group of panelists testified.
Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Lemont Furnace, said lack of access is not the only barrier. Broadband is expensive, and he considered cutting off his broadband service due to cost, he told the panel. He questioned education requirements for broadband.
“Are we pushing, ‘You have to have broadband’ because it’s the next phase of education before we are actually ready for the next phase of education?” Warner asked. “I don’t think it’s fair to the kids who don’t have access or can’t afford it.”
Gary Seelye, who is retired from the Brownsville Area Board of Directors, agreed that affordability was an issue. He said that 100 percent of students in his district are reimbursed for school lunches. But the digital divide needs to be addressed even if affordability is an issue, he said.
“If we don’t do something as a commonwealth to address this situation now, the commonwealth and our nation are going to have difficulty competing in this global market,” Seeyle said.
But there was some positive news – 100 percent of Pennsylvania’s public schools have internet access that meets national standards, said Dr. Eric G. Rosendale, Executive Director of Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit #27. Only 35 schools are connected through cable or a wireless service. And the costs of internet access decreased 35 percent since 2015, he said in his testimony.
Pennsylvania’s agricultural community faces similar challenges due to a lack of broadband. Sixty-four percent of the state’s farmers have internet access, compared to 75 percent of farmers nationally. But 39 percent of Pennsylvania’s farmers still use slower dial-up options, while 30 percent have internet access through cable, according to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
New technology means farmers need high-speed internet for more than just email and internet marketing, said Mark Critz, executive director of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Rural Affairs/Rural Development Council and Western Regional Director for the state Department of Agriculture.
“Tractors, drones, and robotic milkers are examples of equipment that provide efficiencies and innovation on the farm but rely on internet access; even animals and crops can be monitored by web-based applications and programs that require high-speed internet,” Critz said. “The benefits of telemedicine extend to veterinary care but are not available to the very areas of the state that would most benefit because of insufficient broadband.”
Gov. Tom Wolf has made broadband access one of his top priorities. He established the Governor’s Office of Broadband Initiatives in 2018 with a goal of extending access to all of the commonwealth.