HARRISBURG -- The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the peril created by slow internet speeds in rural Pennsylvania, state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, said Thursday.

“COVID-19 actually brought to the forefront broadband and its importance,” Yaw, the chairman of the board for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, said during a hearing on rural broadband.

Lack of broadband access creates problems for people of all ages, especially as people have been confined to their homes due to pandemic mitigation efforts, he said.

“It’s not only telemedicine, it’s the ability of students to access programs in light of school closings,” he said.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania released a study in 2019 that concluded that internet speeds in rural Pennsylvania were too slow to be considered broadband, even though federal data suggests most of the state has access to high-speed internet.

Even before the Center for Rural Pennsylvania report, officials in the state have been fighting to bring broadband into rural regions.

Mercer County used a portion of its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to expand broadband access for between 250 and 350 homes in the county's north-central section between Greenville and Stoneboro.

Jed Hamberger — superintendent of Oswayo Valley School District, which covers portions of Potter and McKean counties in north central Pennsylvania — said that as his district explored whether or how it could offer online classes, they found that broadband access was going to be a huge hurdle.

They did an analysis of the Internet speeds of families in the school district.

In most homes, “we’d be lucky if one kid could” stream video, he said.

“Two-thirds of our distinct did not have the high-speed internet they needed to be able to live stream instruction,” Hamberger.

An effort led by Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative in North Central Pennsylvania demonstrates a potential solution, Yaw said.

The project, funded by $62.5 million in federal and state dollars, has helped extend high-speed Internet throughout Oswayo Valley School District and the surrounding area.

“In total, we are laying down 2,800 miles of fiber optics that will provide needed communication for our smart grid technologies and ultimately improve electric reliability,” said Craig Eccher, President and CEO Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative.

The project has extended 500 miles of cable to 700 customers already, with plans to add 600 more miles this year, extending serving to another 2,000 customers, he said.

Eccher said the effort is reminiscent of the way rural electric cooperatives, like his, were born in the 1930s through the Rural Electrification programs — part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal initiative. At the time, electric utility companies didn’t deem it cost-effective to extend electric service into rural areas of the country.

“The similarities between the need for electrification in rural America and the need for broadband access in rural America are striking,” he said. “Once again, our rural communities are being left behind by the technological advancement of the day. Once again, for-profit corporations have said that delivering broadband to rural America is impossibly hard,” Eccher said.

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