Howard Cooper couldn’t have been standing more than 15 miles away from the gleaming headquarters of Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest residential broadband internet service provider, in a big East Coast city also served by the telecom giant Verizon Communications.
As planes buzzed by overhead, the 62-year-old waved his hands with an air of frustration and bewilderment, pointing at the low-slung office buildings at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport, located just east of Roosevelt Boulevard and with 5,000 takeoffs and landings a month.
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It didn’t even cross his mind last October, when he sub-leased a second-floor office at the Mad Man-era airport for his Tailwinds flight school.
“It’s like plumbing,” Cooper said. “It’s like you need to have it. You have lights. You have a toilet. And you have the internet."
But an estimated 500,000 people in Pennsylvania — and millions throughout the United States, mostly in rural hinterlands — do not have access to high-speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Experts believe the number could be much higher because of inaccurate internet-coverage maps.
Internet dead zones also plague urbanized areas where telecom companies neglected to extend high-speed fiber lines because they don’t think they can earn profits there, even as businesses are increasingly, even totally, dependent on it for banking, scheduling employees, checking the weather, marketing, and exchanging documents and data.
Comcast and Verizon say they want to wire the airport and the airport says it would like it to happen, but no trucks have rolled for Cooper.
Verizon runs its telecom lines into the Northeast Philadelphia Airport and offered Tailwinds a DSL internet connection, which is basically a juiced-up copper line. But Cooper said that DSL doesn’t have the capacity for social media he needs to market Tailwinds, let alone allow him to download software updates for his school’s flight simulator.
Verizon also offered an ethernet connection for $1,800 a month, which is prohibitively expensive for a small business like his, he said.
The city’s Division of Aviation operates the two-runway Northeast Philadelphia Airport and the Philadelphia International Airport. In January, Cooper’s hopes soared like a new flight student piloting a Cessna when he met with about a dozen city and Verizon officials. They seemed to agree to wire the airport, Cooper said.
But since then, it has just been a series of frustrating phone calls, he said.
Airport spokesperson Florence Brown said last week in a statement that the city is “actively working with Verizon to explore Fios installation at Northeast Philadelphia Airport. Comcast was engaged prior to this effort but declined to pursue an extension of broadband services due to a perceived lack of profitability.”
Northeast Philadelphia Airport tenants can access the internet with satellite, DSL or T1, or ethernet, services, the airport says.
“Each tenant is responsible for the implementation and maintenance of their internet services, and the [city’s] Division of Aviation provides infrastructure guidance and resources as a courtesy. There is not yet a predicted timeline for implementation of the Verizon Fios product,” the statement said.
Verizon and Comcast say they want to wire the airport but for one reason or another have not.
Verizon spokesperson David Weissman said on Tuesday that the company is “working with the city airport authority to secure approval to begin wiring the portions of Northeast Philadelphia Airport where Verizon is presently not authorized to provide high-speed internet service.”
He added that "we need approval from the city to place our lines to provide service."
In late 2015, Comcast reached a data-service deal with the city to manage its telecom network, agreeing to spend $10 million to wire more than 200 recreation centers, health clinics, police stations, and other city buildings with high-speed fiber-optic lines, while also earning $32 million in fees over about 15 years. Verizon had previously held the city contract.
Philadelphia’s two airports were carved out of Comcast’s citywide agreement and the cable giant is not contractually allowed to offer individual businesses at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport telecom services, Comcast officials say. Comcast is negotiating to gain access to the airport, they say.
It’s surprising to those who work there that they cannot even get weather reports over their laptops. Employees at a helicopter-flying firm said that they download weather reports on their 3G mobile phones because the DSL-connected computers crash. They asked that the company’s name not be used because they had not been authorized to speak to the media.
Troy Buffenmyer, owner and operator of the National Access Corp., located in the same building as Tailwinds, was stunned to learn that there was no internet connection after he leased his office.
“It’s an airport," Buffenmyer said. "You think it’s up-to-date.”
National Access, based in Lancaster, assesses Medicaid and low-income individuals for government assistance. He flies between Lancaster to Philadelphia to cut his travel time — 20 minutes in the air compared with 90 minutes by car — and turnpike toll costs.
Buffenmyer would like to add several employees and asked Verizon what he could do. A Verizon tech took him into the building’s basement to look at the telecom connections. “It looked like something out of the 1970s,” Buffenmyer said. Tailwinds is getting by with two Verizon mobile hot spots, costing $500 to $600 a month. Cooper and his office and marketing manager, Abigail Nitz, watch their data consumption so they don’t run up the bill.
Cooper thinks the lack of internet will eventually restrict the growth of his flight school, which now has enrolled about half a dozen students.