HONESDALE—Sheri Collins, Acting Executive Director of Governor Tom Wolf's Office of Broadband Initiatives, and Mark Critz, regional director for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture visited Wayne County last Wednesday to meet with local officials, business leaders and hardworking farmers to discuss concerns regarding access to rural broadband.
Collins and Critz discussed the county's broadband situation with Commissioners Wendell Kay and Joseph Adams, County Chief Clerk Vicky Botjer, Wayne Economic Development Corporation (WEDCO) executive director Mary Beth Wood, Wayne Pike Workforce Alliance executive director Lucyann Vierling, Derek Williams of the Wayne County Planning Commission/GIS, before touring Yoga International and meeting with a group of farmers at the Beech Grove Grange.
“We have been collectively...working on this problem,” said Wood to those assembled. “It's not an easy fix, but we're moving along...Probably within the next few weeks we'll have a plan moving forward.”
Wood explained the aforementioned county partners have undertaken an internet and cell-service mapping endeavor across Wayne County, finding “...not only are there areas we're not serving, the entire county is underserved.”
Early results of this endeavor were on display in the form of six maps showing clusters of more reliable internet and cell service near the more densely populated areas of the county.
The service reliability was noticeably less moving north through Wayne County, as well as in the more rural parts of southern Wayne County.
Further emphasizing this point, when meeting with local farmers later that day, the agriculturists relayed several stories of being inconvenienced by a lack of service.
Farmer Don Styles reported an incident where his equipment broke down in a dead zone, forcing him to abandon it and travel half a mile down the road in order to send a photo to his dealer.
A representative from Willow Wisp Farm noted a lack of cell service on the farm necessitates doing business and taking delivery orders by land line telephone.
This presents the potential for missed calls or delayed responses when everyone is out in the field working for the day.
Collins noted in an interview following-up the meeting that she has heard similar stories across the Commonwealth.
Other stories which have arisen in her journey include those of ambulance staff who are sometimes unable to transmit patient data en route due to lack of service, those of hopeful online learners whose connectivity speeds make attendance difficult, and those of telecommuters who have lost jobs because their internet speed couldn't keep up.
In a press release following the event, Collins stated, “Every time I visit a rural community, I hear new ways that lack of broadband access is holding them back. It’s past time that we take action to make sure our rural businesses, farmers, schools, and residents are connected to reliable high-speed internet.”
Commissioner Adams noted at the meeting that poor internet service has had a negative effect on student populations in Wayne County.
“The issue is, Wayne County has the fastest declining student population in the Commonwealth...K through 12,” he said. “And if you look on the map, anywhere from Honesdale...north is where the biggest decline in student population is.
“Well, why is that? Well, there's no internet service there. Zero. Most people have nothing.”
Citing resources from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), Vierling added “From PDE, you have from 2005-15 over 2,200 kids outmigration from the three Ws [Wallenpaupack, Wayne Highlands and Western Wayne school districts].
“We need in-migration. And then we have the expectation of the population that we're trying to attract. We've got great school, but the expectation...is high speed internet.”
Adams further noted lack of high speed internet access deters businesses from relocating to Wayne County and is a major hurdle for entrepreneurs to form startups.
Botjer explained at last Wednesday's meeting a preliminary idea arising from the research so far is “ an open source concept where we place routers at dark fibrous spots...and then the different providers can link into those routers at those different service locations and hopefully expand their service there.”
“Dark fiber” refers to fiber optic cable, capable of supporting high-speed internet and other information transfer, which is installed in a location, but not currently activated.
Botjer explained such locations exist at both Preston and Damascus schools, as well as in Honesdale.
The Chief Clerk noted further meetings have been scheduled to discuss the feasibility of this solution with consultants and with the cellular and internet providers in the county.
A major difficulty in moving forward, however, is cost.
Detailing the county's recent expansion of high speed internet services to its business park in Sterling Township, Botjer explained the infrastructure installation cost around $200,000, two-thirds of the Local Share Account (LSA) grant awarded to complete the whole project.
Collins noted at the meeting, while federal funding exists to assist in rural broadband initiatives, it can be difficult to access given numerous stipulations associated with it.
In an interview following the meeting, Collins explained the Governor's Restore PA initiative—a $4.5 billion bi-partisan proposal aimed at infrastructure repairs and funded through a severance tax paid primarily by out-of-state residents—would, if passed, assist in some of that expense.
Collins noted the initiative would allow local partners “...to apply for grants to get to solutions and identify needs.”