Pining for better internet in Pennsylvania's rural counties

Lee Bendinsky uses a neighboring business’s Wi-Fi to access his tablet in his barbershop in Wyalusing, Bradford County.

When Pennsylvania’s ridges rise along highways north and west of Philadelphia, cellphone bars often fall and the digital world fades.

Tourists call that unplugging.

For the people who live “out there,” though, dropped calls and spinning wheels of death on web pages can be part of a daily routine. Motorists there know the dead zones because they are legion. Sometimes, when it rains, they say, it’s better to close the laptop and take another crack at that summer read.

“Oh, I tell people when I’m driving that I’m coming up on a mountain and I’m going to lose them,” said Chrissy Salsman, who was writing “Crab Cakes $18.99” on the specials board at the Wyalusing Hotel in Bradford County last week.

Current and former elected officials in some of Pennsylvania’s most rural counties say broadband issues are more than mere annoyances for residents. The internet, they say, is essential infrastructure, the same as roads and electricity, and the answer for residents upset with their providers isn’t to move closer to more developed areas.

“People want better and they deserve better,” said Donna Iannone, a Sullivan County commissioner. “Just because we live in a rural area doesn’t mean we wouldn’t like to have the same services as urban areas.”

Camera icon Jason Nark
Donna Iannone, a Sullivan County commissioner. said she doesn’t mind that there’s no cell or internet service at her business, the Colley Pub, but she’s still fighting to improve connections for others in the rural county.

Broadband access affects areas across the whole country, in mountains that make Pennsylvania’s look like hills, across deserts, and into places that are downright frontier, like northern Nevada. A 2016 Federal Communications Commission report estimated that 39 percent of rural Americans, about 23 million people, had no access to 25 megabits per second broadband, the agency’s benchmark for “high speed.”

In Pennsylvania, the number is 803,645, about 6 percent of the population. Geography and population density are the main barriers, a reason why 69 percent of Sullivan County, sparsely populated and crammed with mountains, lacks high-speed internet.

”You can’t charge the customers enough to make it feasible” to provide service, said Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman.

The federal government, aware that money’s an issue, is giving telecom providers incentives to lay line where they normally wouldn’t.

The FCC dubbed August “Rural Broadband Month” and announced it would be funneling $2 billion, via its Connect America Fund, to providers who “commit to offer voice and broadband services to fixed locations in unserved high-cost areas in our country.”  In February, the agency said it would allocate a separate $4.53 billion to  4G LTE service “primarily in rural areas that would not be served in the absence of government support.”

One provider taking advantage of the FCC’s funding is Connecticut-based Frontier Communications, which is available in 24 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, including Montgomery and Lancaster. Frontier said it has invested more than $121 million in its Pennsylvania network since 2011.

Andy Malinoski, a Frontier spokesman, said the Connect America Funds program will help the company bring access to an additional 11,031 homes and businesses through 2020. The company has used CAF funding, coupled with its own, to reach more than 5,200 in the state so far.

“This is an important public-private partnership that works to connect the unconnected and Frontier is proud to help close America’s digital divide where we can,” Malinoski said in a statement.

Pennsylvanians fare better than residents of many other rural states in terms of connection speeds, and the gap between rural and urban customers is often minimal when it comes to the slower download speeds. Netflix, for example, recommends a connection speed of 1.5 megabits per second. According to the FCC, 99.8 percent of rural Pennsylvanians have access to that speed.

However, at 25 megabits per second, Netflix’s recommended speed for watching “ultra high definition,” 73 percent of the rural population could watch, as opposed to 96.4 percent in urban areas.

Former Sullivan County Commissioner Bob Getz has been trying to get faster internet and better cell service there for years, less for download speeds and more for public safety.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s getting better,” he said. “This is how you live now. You pay your bills online. You need a good internet.”

Griping about a service provider is an American tradition, both rural and urban, and customers in Bradford, Sullivan, and Wayne Counties were groaning to a recent visitor.

At Chris’s Western Beef, a cowboy-theme roadside attraction in Wyoming County, owner Nancy McKennas, 58, said cell coverage isn’t great and her internet service is in a holding pattern.

“The cell is spotty in different parts of my home. It’s because of the mountain,” she said at the restaurant window. “My internet is not great and I’ve just changed that. “

In downtown Wyalusing, about 14 miles to the north, McKennas’ brother, Richard Sherman, owns several storefronts, including a new sandwich shop. He’s happy with the service there, but at another business in Bradford County, he lost connection 20 times in one month.

“It happens when it rains,” Sherman, 57, said.

Camera icon Jason Nark
Richard Sherman said he lost internet connection 20 times in one month at one of his Bradford County businesses.

 

At Bendinsky’s Barber Shop in Wyalusing, the decor hasn’t changed in 58 years. Haircuts are $8 and the reading material is mostly hunting magazines. Owner Lee Bendinsky has the shells of turtles, caught by his mother decades ago, hanging on the paneled walls and a collection of wood carvings he made before he got a tablet to play games and read the news between trims.

His connection is great.

“I steal the WiFi from the hotel across the street,” Bendinsky said. “Before that, I used to used the eye doctor’s WiFi next door, with permission.”

One man in Wyalusing declined to give his name, saying the provider he hates is better than the one he had.

In 2015, Doug McLinko, chairman of the Bradford County commissioners, received a “cease and desist” letter from Frontier Communications for describing its service as “poor” to a newspaper there. He’s still not happy with it today.

“I didn’t cease, nor did I desist,” McLinko said.

McLinko, a self-described “right winger,” said he’s wary of government funds being funneled to private business.

Some programs aimed at improving rural broadband, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service, have come under fire for mishandling funds and failing to meet goals.

Still, McLinko said Bradford County is looking into installing its own cable line, with the help of impact-fee funds from developers, to get more residents a better connection.

“We’re rural,” McLinko said, “but we’re not backward.”