Speaking at an online meeting of the @Home in Adams County Initiative yesterday, Center for Rural Pennsylvania Director Kyle Kopko said Adams County has only about 197 people per square mile, and that like other rural counties, it ranks below the state average for internet download speeds.
Kopko said households without adequate broadband are poorer and older than average, and more likely to have family members with disabilities.
Kopko defined acceptable broadband speeds as a minimum of 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed.
The problems, which occur because providers focus on serving more populated areas, pose a variety of difficulties for the county.
“This past year has proved why community-wide broadband action is necessary. It’s time to think of broadband as a utility – like water or electricity,” said Adams County Community Foundation (ACCF) CEO Ralph Serpe.
“It wasn’t too long ago we weren’t really talking about this,” said Adams County Commissioner Marty Qually, noting the county needed a “two-fold” strategy of educating the public and educating the service providers. “I’ll work with anybody as long as it helps what we’re all doing. We can’t afford to be left behind.”
In terms of education, Upper Adams School District Superintendent Wesley Doll noted that all of the textbooks used in the district require internet connectivity to make full use of them.
This creates a challenge for a district that has over 1600 students spread over 100 square miles.
While the district has provided tablets and laptops for the students, depending on where they live not all students have adequate broadband access to do their homework. “We’re limiting access to some students. Our students need to have access,” said Doll.
HACC Vice President of Information Technology & Chief Information Officer Robert Messner agreed with Doll’s assessment, saying “students are in desperate need of reliable broadband providers.”
“We’ve had challenges finding broadband for all our staff. Work from home is a real challenge for people who don’t have broadband access,” said Vice President and Chief Technology Officer at WellSpan Health Mick Murphy.
Murphy said lack of broadband has negative implications on the physical and mental health of residents, and negatively affects the ability to retain skilled workers. He said adequate broadband helps give people the ability to stay out of the hospital and stay healthier by providing online monitoring and medical visits at home.
Rabbittransit Senior Project Manager Sherry Welsh said broadband provides independence and self-sufficiency for people who rely on public transportation, and especially for those with disabilities. “They don’t have to wait on hold on the phone. They can create their own trips,” she said.
Robin Fitzpatrick, President of Adams Economic Alliance, said adequate broadband access helps provide livable wages in manufacturing and agriculture.
Fitzpatrick noted that Adams County companies rely on broadband to share large data files in their manufacturing operations and to allow remote diagnostics and monitoring.
Fitzpatrick said modern agriculture was also dependent on broadband.
Community Media of South Central PA co-owner and Director Mark Wherley said local communities across the country were taking on installing broadband themselves and that his organization had taken on a mission to help address the broadband issue in the county.
Community Media has received grants from ACCF and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to install fixed wireless devices in county households, and is helping provide fiber-optic service to the New Oxford-Abbottstown region.
Wherley said equipment for their projects could be housed in fire stations, creating a revenue generator for them.
Kopko said it was likely that electric cooperatives would be involved in the rural broadband project and that satellite-access broadband would be likely to become more important. Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) is testing its satellite offerings, which offer up to 70/10 service, in Adams County.
Sheri Collins, Senior Director, Office of Corporate Relations at Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development said broadband access is critical for Pennsylvania’s economy and that improving connectivity access was a top priority for the her department and for the Wolf administration.
“The department stands ready to help you with your efforts,” said Collins.