DOVER, Pa. — Nearly every night, as Ray Van de Castle locks up the Dover Area Community Library in York County, he notices people in parked cars with their eyes glued to gently glowing screens.
The people camped out in the parking lot do not have good internet access at their homes and come to the library to take advantage of its free WiFi, which Van de Castle, the library’s director, said is always switched on.
“There’s pockets up here that don’t even have dial-up,” he said.
Van de Castle’s community is similar to many others across Pennsylvania — rural, blue-collar areas struggling with a lack of broadband connectivity amid a nationwide technological boom.
Now, tackling the disparity in internet access, which impacts everything from schools to local businesses, has become a rallying cry in Harrisburg. Over the last six months, Gov. Tom Wolf has crisscrossed the state highlighting the issue. And although he and lawmakers have yet to settle on a fix, they agree it should be a priority.
“When we look at broadband, what we fail to do sometimes is peel back the layers and see how this is impacting families and educators and real-life people,” said Sheri Collins, director of the Governor’s Office of Broadband Initiatives. “The broadband issue in Pennsylvania is extremely complicated and extremely expensive, but we have got to take a leadership position and solve these issues.”
An estimated 800,000 Pennsylvanians — 6% of the state’s population — do not have high-speed access to the internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which defines connectivity as having minimum download speeds of 25 megabits per second of data, the requirement for watching a Netflix video in ultra high-definition.
But the number of people without broadband could be higher, according to a study last year by researchers from Pennsylvania State University. It found no county in which 50% or more of residents consistently received adequate download speeds.
And while broadband connectivity can be hard to find in some some urban areas, the problem is more pronounced in rural communities. In Philadelphia County, for instance, the median download speed is 17.2 megabits per second. In York County, it’s 9.2.
For the people living in underserved regions, an inability to digitally connect is limiting in many ways.
“So many things that we take for granted can’t be done without high-speed internet,” said Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R., York), who leads a bipartisan group of legislators examining broadband disparities. “So many people say, ‘Oh, people just want Netflix,’ but it’s about so much more than that.”
Take education. In the Dover Area School District, which encompasses Dover Township, the Borough of Dover, and Washington Township in York County, roughly 25% of families with school-age children do not have internet access at home, according to Superintendent Tracy Krum.
But homework assignments, grade reports, and the school’s emergency forms are all online — and the district has been forced to accommodate those who do not have internet access, while ensuring that all students learn to navigate a digital world.
“The last two or three years, it has really come to the point where if you’re not online, if you’re not able to access the internet, then you’re really missing out on just being able to do things,” Krum said.
For local businesses, not having good internet service limits everything from advertising opportunities to payment options. Carly Rossi, owner of Johnny’s Raceway Eatery on Route 74 in Dover, said many businesses in the area can’t accept credit cards.
“It’s a very woodsy area,” she said. “You go five miles either way and you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
Even for stores that usually have connectivity, outages mean cash-only transactions, a line out the door, and lost business.
“The connection for our register, if it’s storming, will go out sometimes,” said Maddie Myers, general manager of Sarah’s Creamery, next door to Rossi’s restaurant. “We can take cash even when we can’t take credit cards, so we direct customers to Fulton Bank and it’s a 50/50 chance if they come back or not.”
For Bethany Coursen, a dairy farmer in Spring Mills, Centre County, not having internet access makes it hard to do everything, from having a family movie night to updating software for her milking system and crunching data on each cow’s production.
Other Mid-Atlantic states also are seeking solutions. Facebook recently announced plans to establish a fiber optic cable stretching the length of West Virginia to improve internet connectivity there, and in 2017, Maryland established a Rural Broadband Task Force.
Pennsylvania has vast swaths of mountainous terrain, and houses can be miles apart in rural areas. Because of this, laying new fiber cables is difficult, expensive, and unappealing to broadband providers.
“When you run a fiber optic cable into [a] city, you have a lot more potential customers along that line, so you’ll get a greater return on investment,” Phillips-Hill said.
The state also lacks data on the exact scope of broadband disparity, and how much it will cost to fix it. The Penn State study is one of the first to provide reliable county-level information.
Collins, who heads the governor’s broadband office, said much of the information is anecdotal.
“That’s part of the challenge,” she said.
Lawmakers, state officials, and broadband providers are exploring options, and most agree some public investment will be crucial. A bipartisan hearing is scheduled for September.
Wolf spent months pushing his plan, Restore PA, which calls for borrowing $4.5 billion to invest in infrastructure statewide, including to increase high-speed internet access in rural areas. At a broadband event with Wolf earlier this summer, Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative president Craig Eccher said his Potter County-based cooperativeis looking into building above-ground fiber optic lines to bypass the cost of burying cable.
“The solution could look different in each region,” Collins said.
But even if broadband access improves in rural areas, Phillips-Hill believes there will be other access problems to address. When she founded the Broadband Caucus last year, she envisioned it as a forum for rural lawmakers to discuss connectivity issues. She expanded it after hearing from lawmakers in cities including Philadelphia, where poverty hinders broadband access.
In struggling rural areas, the access problem is compounded by not having the time or resources to drive to far-away facilities, such as libraries, that have internet connections.