Sunrise over lowland river valley landscape

Sunrise over lowland river valley landscape near Oosterwolde, Netherlands

NEWPORT, Pa. — A father and daughter in Perry County are still awaiting results for high-speed broadband improvements to their rural area and around the state to finally upload.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic first made an impact on our nation six months ago, nearly everyone has been forced to go online for work and school, from home. In areas such as mountainous Perry County, it is nearly impossible to go online effectively.

Jennifer Danko is a middle school teacher in the Newport School District. Her father is Wayne Campbell, the Pennsylvania State Grange president.

As head of the State Grange, Campbell has been fighting for an increase in broadband internet connectivity in rural areas for years. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has created a recent huge spike in the need for high-speed internet access everywhere in the U.S., rural areas continue to miss out.

“We talked about this being an issue close to 10 years ago,” Campbell said, “but no one helped us. Three years ago, the Farm Bureau and others jumped in, trying to get legislators to realize that one day this is going to be a real issue.”

That “one day” began in March of this year, when COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S. resulted in schools — and most other places that large groups of people gather — closing to slow the spread of infection. Students and teachers turned to the internet as a way to continue with education while schools were closed.

Six months later, many schools are either 100% online or partially online, and the need for high-speed broadband is urgent and ongoing.

After dial-up internet became outdated and slow, internet providers have used the technologies of DSL (telephone lines), cable, fiber optics and satellite to create better, faster internet connections. However, in a sparsely populated rural area, there often are not enough paying customers to incentivize a provider to build the necessary infrastructure, such as laying cable lines. New fiber optic technology, which gives very high broadband speeds, has so far typically been installed in some cities and towns, where plenty of available customers help pay to build it. This varied situation causes a “digital divide,” and federal and state governments often step in to fund the broadband infrastructure so that all citizens can reap the benefits of high-speed broadband.

In Pennsylvania in March 2018, Gov. Wolf announced a Pennsylvania Broadband Investment Incentive Program along with the Office of Broadband Initiatives, charged with carrying out the program. Through this program, $35 million was allocated in financial assistance to private providers bidding on service areas within Pennsylvania at specified internet speeds of 100 mbps or more by June 30, 2022.

A report from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania in August 2019 found that in many rural areas, internet speeds were much lower than what providers claimed they were.

Campbell disagrees with Gov. Wolf’s method of funding broadband access in the future via a natural gas severance tax. Campbell has other ideas for funding broadband that he advocates for.

For now, Campbell said, he and many others across the state are frustrated with low-speed internet or no internet, and with waiting on legislators.

Danko, meanwhile, fears what this delay could mean for her students during this pandemic.

The Newport School District started in-person classes at the end of August. Danko is concerned about the possibility of school closures if COVID-19 infection rates go up locally. If that happens, there will be a need for virtual (online) instruction before the school year is over.

Danko went to her school superintendent earlier this summer and told her she was concerned about her students that have no access to the internet or limited access.

The Newport School District, she said, has been looking at what other school districts are doing and finding ways to make its own response “Newport specific.”

For one, Danko said there are some internet issues within her building that need to be ironed out. The first few days of school included lots of figuring out digital devices and some students trying to use their own data on their phones.

“We’re trying to use technology the best that we can,” she said, by initiating a Google classroom set-up and a video-communication software called Google Meet — a service similar to video-conferencing software Zoom — in which students can “meet and talk” together from their computer screens.

For students who do not have internet access at home, the students will have to “call in” via telephone during class time and use a PIN number to access the class meeting. Danko teaches special education in the middle school. Of her 11 students, she said two of them do not have Wi-Fi internet access.

Another plan in place for education includes allowing students to download material for use offline (while not connected to the internet) in the event of a three- to five-day shutdown.

“It causes you to think outside the box,” she said of the options.

During the pandemic, Danko has delivered work to students who don’t have internet. She places items in a bag and leaves it at the doorstep.

Campbell said the reason some rural areas do not have internet access at all is partly due to the fact not every homeowner in that region wants it.

“A lot of people out here don’t have it (at) all and don’t want it,” he said. “Maybe three families want it, and it’s not enough to bring it out that way.”

The majority of the folks who are not interested are elderly, he said.

“People are scared of new things,” Campbell said, adding, “I made a commitment years ago that technology would not get the best of me.”

Campbell also said that many seniors who have life-saving necklaces or bracelets that call for help need internet access. And they do not realize that it is important.

Campbell said he wants people to understand the impact that lack of high-speed broadband has on everyone.

He said some of the biggest impact is on farmers and rural businesses. For one, many farmers are using “smart” farm equipment. He gave an example of a sprayer that needs a GPS (a satellite-based navigation system) to access data.

Lack of good internet broadband connectivity is critical for businesses, sales and communications, especially in rural areas.

“I went to the butcher shop not long ago. I gave the girl a credit card,” Campbell said, and she immediately gave him a worried look. Their internet speed had been slow at the shop and she was concerned the credit card would not work.

“She told me, ‘We’re really worried about losing sales,’” he said.

Tabitha Goodling is a freelance writer in central Pennsylvania.

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