STATE— The Center for Rural Pennsylvania released the results of a year-long study assessing broadband internet speeds across Pennsylvania, noting that, “...there isn't a single Pennsylvania county where at least 50 percent of the population received 'broadband' connectivity.”

As defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), broadband connectivity is a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed of 3 Mbps.

For Wayne County specifically, the median download speed—that is, the number in the exact middle of the data set—is just over 6 Mbps.

According to the results of the study, comprised of over 11 million data points, the vast majority of Pennsylvania experiences median speeds between 4 and 10 Mbps and only the more densely populated areas have median speeds exceeding 10 Mbps.

According to FCC availability maps from 2017, every county in Pennsylvania has access to 25 Mbps broadband speeds.

Measured results from the study show fewer than half the population are actually utilizing those speeds.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania notes in a release, “...this new research indicates that these official estimates are downplaying the true state of the digital divide in Pennsylvania because they rely on self-reported data by Internet Service Providers (ISPs).”

Combining the 2018 data with an additional 15 million tests across the Commonwealth, the research team found that “...since 2014, the discrepancy between ISPs' self-reported broadband availability in the FCC's broadband maps and the speed test results collected through the research has grown substantially in rural areas and not in urban areas,” states the release.

The data was collected over the course of a year by the Penn State University's Palmer Chair in Telecommunications Sascha Meinrath and a research team, utilizing available resources through the open source Measurement Lab (M-Lab) platform.

The link to the full report is available through The Center for Rural Pennsylvania website: https://www.rural.palegislature.us.

M-Lab data for the broadband test is available online from: http://pa.broadbandtest.us.

What the numbers mean

According to the FCC, 3-8 Mbps is enough for one user on one device (smart phone, tablet, computer, smart tv, etc.) to accomplish basic tasks like web browsing, emailing, and listening to web radio while also preforming a moderate task such as video streaming, video conferencing or online gaming.

The FCC notes that streaming a standard definition video requires between 3 and 4 Mbps at minimum.

High definition video requires a minimum 5-8 Mbps and streaming Ultra HD 4K video requires 25Mbps.

Typical file downloads alone require a minimum of 10 Mbps, according to the FCC.

The more tasks one attempts to perform on their device, or the more devices attempting to perform tasks at the same time require faster internet speeds to juggle all the data.

Households with three and four devices in use at the same time require a minimum of 12 Mbps for adequate shared usage and upwards of 25 Mbps should several of those devices attempt to game, stream or videoconference at the same time, according to the FCC.

A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center notes that one third of Americans live in a household which contains three or more smartphones and 23 percent of all American households contain three or more desktop computers.

A Pew Research Center Fact Tank study from 2016 notes that 25 percent of households making less than $30,000 per year and 32 percent of households making between $30,000 and 75,000 contain three or more smartphones.

More information regarding internet speed usage is available from the FCC website: https://www.fcc.gov/research-reports/guides/household-broadband-guide.

The Pew Research Center report and survey is available online at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/25/a-third-of-americans-live-in-a-household-with-three-or-more-smartphones.

Legislative response

Noting that “The digital divide is a long-running problem of great concern to rural areas,” Senator Lisa Baker (R-20) stated in regards to the findings, “This latest report makes a couple of crucial points: prior legislation has failed to close the gap, and rapid advances in technology have made the problem worse.”

The Senator equivocated high-speed internet infrastructure to that of bridges and roads, stating “Lack of high speed access is a handicap for individuals, who are hampered in everything from job searches to educational opportunity, and for community institutions, businesses, and heath care providers.”

Baker added that state government must be part of the solution to this issue, noting, “The Senate Communications and Technology Committee plans to conduct a thoughtful analysis and work toward a solution moving forward.”

Similarly, Representative Jonathan Fritz (R-111) stated, “The report serves to substantiate what we've known for some time. Those of us in rural areas with challenging topography are woefully underserved when it comes to business class broadband access.”

Fritz noted infrastructure already exists to serve telephone, television and electricity to consumers: “Simply adding a fiber optic line should not be such a daunting task.”

“A cooperative approach between the pole owners and the service providers along with the state and federal government is the recipe for progress,” said Fritz. “It's a basic quality of life issue. Internet is not a luxury, but rather a necessity.”

Likewise noting the critical role internet accessibility plays in both education and business enterprise, Governor Tom Wolf proposed to “bridge the digital divide” as part of the Restore Pennsylvania initiative.

Solutions proposed include grant incentives for providers to build out to consumers and technical assistance for planning and feasibility studies.

“The people of Pennsylvania deserve access to modern utilities – including broadband internet, and we have the ability to bring it to everyone through Restore Pennsylvania,” said Wolf in a release.

—Information from a release was used in this story.