By David Loomis
ERNEST – In early May, Blue Spruce Park, a gem of the Indiana County Parks & Trails system, hosted an environmental competition that drew 150 students and county Commissioner Rodney D. Ruddock. Enthused by the event, he whipped out his mobile phone and sent a message to invite his commissioner colleagues at the county courthouse five miles east.
Ruddock’s message did not get through. When he checked his cell phone an hour later, he realized it had no internet service.
So he tried to use the device to make a phone call to the courthouse. Again, no service.
Ruddock recounted his frustration on Wednesday before a state legislative hearing on high-speed, broadband internet expansion at the park lodge. Several officials remarked on the appropriateness of the venue, given what state Rep Cris Dush, R- Brookville, described as the locale’s “broadband desert.”
The discussion opened with a suggestion that the standing-room-only audience should turn off cell phones, not because ringing might disrupt the proceedings.
“You probably will just drain your battery,” state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, the panel’s chair and a founder of the legislature’s Broadband Caucus, advised the audience.
THEY’RE NOT THE ONLY ONES. A yearlong study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and Penn State researchers reported in June that “there isn’t a single Pennsylvania county where at least 50 percent of the population received ‘broadband’ connectivity.”
In rural Indiana County, population 85,000, that means about 42,500 residents may lack what the governor and a bipartisan group of lawmakers agree is a key to competitiveness in agriculture, health care, education, business, community engagement – any sector that high-speed internet service can enrich.
Statewide, lack of broadband stunts opportunity for more than six million of the commonwealth’s 12 million residents.
These new numbers are much worse than older figures provided by the Federal Communications Commission, which not uncoincidentally has supported ever more monopolistic mergers, such as the proposed marriage between T-Mobile and Sprint, the nation’s third and fourth largest wireless providers. The FCC has been asserting that 800,000 Pennsylvanians lack access to affordable broadband internet, and more than a half million of them live in rural areas.
But the FCC numbers are understatements because of flawed methodology. They rely on self-reported, self-interested data from internet service providers, such as Verizon, AT&T and other telecoms. By their counts, if one census tract or county hosts one internet user whose download speed achieves 25 megabits per second and upload speed achieves 3 Mbps, then the entire census tract is counted as meeting the FCC standard for internet access.
In Indiana County, median download speeds have increased to 40.39 Mbps from 4.76 between December 2014 and December 2018, according to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania research. Upload speeds likewise have increased – to 4.68 Mbps from 2.94.
By comparison, the county’s speeds are faster than figures posted for neighboring Cambria and Armstrong counties but slower than urbanized Westmoreland.
Median internet speeds (in megabits per second), December 2018
County download speed upload speed
Indiana 40.39 4.68
Armstrong 9.22 1.13
Cambria 22.71 4.66
Westmoreland 67.07 4.95
Source: Center for Rural Pennsylvania
Globally, average broadband download speed in 2018 was 46.12 Mbps; average upload speed was 22.44 Mbps, according to Forbes magazine.
Meanwhile, about a quarter of rural U.S. residents say lack of broadband is a major problem. An additional third say it’s a problem. Such polling about the digital divide helps attract the attention of lawmakers from both sides of the partisan divide.
WHEN RUDDOCK APPEARED before the Blue Spruce panel on Wednesday, he represented the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. The veteran county commissioner spoke forcefully, more so than most of the technocrats who joined him at the witness table. He chided stakeholders – “vendors” especially – for lack of leadership, lack of accountability, lack of progress.
“We are right back where we were 15 years ago,” Ruddock told the committee. “We need to do something.”
When he concluded, the audience applauded.
In a phone interview, Ruddock reviewed the hearing.
“It was a lot of rhetoric,” said Ruddock, who in February announced his retirement come December after 16 years in office. “I’ve heard it many times.”
— On lazy stakeholder leadership: “Somehow, large vendors have a greater role,” Ruddock said. “Comcast has a large footprint in Indiana County. They are a little reluctant to reach out when we need them.” Verizon, too, he added.
— On remarks by Sheri R. Collins, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s acting executive director at his Office of Broadband Initiatives, part of his statewide infrastructure effort:
“She did a nice job,” Ruddock said. “She’s doing what needs to be done. She has great ideas. I don’t think we can ignore what she proposes.”
What she and her boss propose is a reported $1 billion plan paid for by tax revenue from Marcellus shale extraction. The idea was resisted by state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, in his questioning of Collins, despite his opening statement calling for “solutions” and “resources.” He did not address the economic penalty of not spending the money.
His May 21 special-election opponent, Democrat Susan Boser, made high-speed broadband and other infrastructure improvements, supported by a severance tax on fracking, a centerpiece of her unsuccessful campaign.
— On spinning wheels: Ruddock said the county has spent $2.5 million on high-speed fiber optic cable alone to improve broadband for first responders. But he expressed frustration that the county has not been able to extend the cable into homes, businesses and schools. (Indiana University of Pennsylvania is a notable exception: It is wired with fiber-optic cable provided by the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research, a Pennsylvania-based non-profit, membership-based statewide research, education, and community network.)
— On the precedent of rural electrification: “Broadband is not unlike water, sewer, electricity,” Ruddock said, citing the successful extension of electric power to the nation’s heartland during the Great Depression.
The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 created a system of electric power cooperatives, most of which still operate. Rural electrification improved the quality of life for farmers, and it increased their competitiveness and productivity.
Similar efforts to bring broadband service to rural communities recently reported collective benefits exceeding public investments in as little as one year.
IN INDIANA COUNTY, Ruddock’s impatience is showing.
“If we had leadership in business and government, they could have fixed it sooner than now,” Ruddock said.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
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