TOWANDA — A recent research project which sought to measure the median broadband speed within Pennsylvania concluded that there was no county within the state where the population received 50 percent of broadband connectivity.
The standard broadband connectivity is defined as 25 megabits download speed and 3 megabits upload speed by the Federal Communications Commission.
“Over 800,000 Pennsylvania residents do not have access to broadband connectivity, according to the Federal Communications Commission. However, recent research has documented that these official estimates are downplaying the true state of the digital divide because they rely on self-reported data by Internet Service Providers (ISPs),” according to the report.
The year-long research project report, “Broadband Availability and Access in Rural Pennsylvania,” was conducted by Penn State University’s Palmer Chair in Telecommunications Sascha Meinrath and a team of researchers. The research was funded by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, an agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
The research team collected more than 11 million broadband speed tests from across Pennsylvania and found that median speeds across most areas of the state did not meet the FCC’s criteria to qualify as a broadband connection.
One of those areas is Bradford County.
The median broadband download speed of Bradford county is 2.75 megabits.
“As the research makes clear, it appears that the divide between actual (speed test data) and advertised speeds (self-reported by ISPs via the FCC’s Form 477) is far greater in rural areas of the state than in urban areas,” according to the report.
“This research mapped out the levels of actual connectivity speeds that Pennsylvanians experienced while participating in a broadband test,” Sen. Yaw said in a press release. “The maps produced from these tests show that a digital divide in Pennsylvania is real, and that connectivity speeds are substantially slower in our rural counties.”
The research project done by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania is “supporting the positions the Commissioners in Bradford County have been taking in the past year.”
“We have residents with compromised health conditions living in areas where they can’t call an ambulance if they need it because their phones are tied to the internet. A gas worker may not have communication to report a leak or fire. Our fire departments also have difficulties communicating in some of the more rural areas,” Bradford County Commissioner Ed Bustin said.
The commissioners and Bradford County have already begun to tackle this issue. Last year, the county and commissioners implemented a plan to fund and install a broadband network system within the county.
“We’re going to put what amounts to the backbone of a network in the county,” Bustin said. “We’re going to string three connected loops of fiber in the county. We’re going to do one at a time and our first loop is phase one and that’s already underway.”
Each phase of the network project will take about a year to complete.
The first loop and phase one of the project will cover from Towanda to Troy, then to portions of Wells Township and the New York state border, then to the Valley and then finally back down to Towanda.
One of the key points of this project is the economic benefits for companies. If a cable TV and/or internet company want to provide those services within Bradford County, they can “latch onto” the county’s network, which would save them the money of undertaking the development of the network itself.
“It’s meant to incentivize users ... (to) bring better broadband for the rural areas,” Bustin said. “We don’t have a guarantee that people will do that, but we know that the economics of it make sense.”
The broadband network loop the county is developing is being made with “dark fiber,” which means there’s no content on it. So, the cable and internet companies can come in and “put the technology that pushes content through the fiber that gets it out to the residents.”
This network project the county is undertaking is budgeted for around $11 million. The county will be using Act 13 money and various grants from other agencies to help fund the project.
Outside of the county, the Central Bradford Progress Authority has given presentations to Sen. Yaw’s Committee and the House committee on broadband initiatives on the county’s network project.
“We feel like we have a model that can work not just for Bradford County but rural Pennsylvania overall, and in fact, even a national project,” Bustin said.
“It’s important to note we’re able to do what we’re doing because we can paint a picture of what the need is. And we can only do that because we’ve had tons of input form Bradford County residents. They’ve come to our meetings, they’ve sent letters, they’ve called our office. And we hear it all the time,” Bustin said. “We’re just trying to listen to what the citizens are telling us to make this happen.”