photo by CHERYL A. CLARKE

Rep. Martin Causer, Potter County, (far right), asks questions of broadband providers during a forum at the Penn Wells Hotel, Wellsboro, April 5. Next to him are (from left), Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich and Dr. Stephan J. Goetz.

WELLSBORO – State Sen. Eugene Yaw chaired a forum April 5 at the Penn Wells Hotel to hear testimony from broadband company representatives and those needing better services.

The forum, held by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, invited state officials and representative to listen and ask questions of those testifying.

According to Mark Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Office of Broadband Initiatives, “broadband access is essential to growing the economy, supporting agricultural business, expanding educational opportunities for children, increasing access to modern healthcare, and improving the safety of communities.”

More than 800,000 Pennsylvanians still lack access to reliable, high speed internet, of which more than 520,000 live in rural areas, he said.

A public-private partnership is needed to achieve this access, Smith said.

“In 2017, Pennsylvania opted into the deployment of the interoperable Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network,” Smith said.

The network will be available through a public-private partnership with FirstNet and AT&T to provide the first reliable broadband network for first responders acrross the state, he said, including those in rural areas. Yaw, who represents Bradford and parts of Lycoming counties, said that the need for broadband affects all residents.

“The battles aren’t necessarily between Democrats and Republicans, it is about rural Americans getting our share. Just because we live in a rural area doesn’t mean that we should have substandard broadband,” Yaw said.

Rep. Martin Causer, Potter and McKean counties, noted that broadband access is critical for rural parts of the state, and the forum created the “opportunity for us to work together to really help our rural members.”

Forum vice chairman Rep. Garth Everett, who represents Lycoming County, said lack of broadband access is “an issue that I hear people complaining the most,”

“Fifteen years ago companies promised to build broadband out to rural areas, and what it was then is not what it is now and those companies have not fulfilled their promise,” Everett said.

Joe Witmer, counsel for the state Public Utility Commision chairman Gladys Brown, said, “Broadband has two parts: availability and affordability.” Broadband is “expensive to build”; the Federal Communications Commission estimated a 1-30 Mpbs network costs about $50 billion while a 100 Mpbs network costs about $350 billion, he said.

Last year, the FCC gave away about $4.5 billion for access and Pennsylvania dispensed about $34 million.

“At that rate, it will take the FCC from 12 to 87 years to build the systems to provide service,” Witmer said.

The expense affects rates that consumers pay for service, Smith said. For example, it costs $300 to serve rural Pennsylvanians and $100 to serve urban Pennsylvanians. Policy pricing would total the cost, $400, and divide it so everyone pays $20.

Market pricing would have consumers paying their own costs, either $300 or $100.

Witmer said that not all broadband platforms are the same.

“Satellite can provide it, but capacity restraints mean it might not be able to serve everyone who wants it. Wireline is preferred because it offers virtually unlimited scalability,” he said.

Wireless networks also are not equal to wireline, he said.

Broadband providers must maximize value for shareholders, Witmer said, making it difficult to also bend to consumer demand.

“Broadband advocates owe a public interest duty to ensure service for all and these two can conflict,” he said.

The legislature and state administration are looking at ways to address the issue, including a recent $35 million initiative in Gov. Wolf’s Broadband Office, Witmer said.

Causer asked Witmer about the 2004 debate on making sure broadband was available to the entire Commonwealth by 2030.

“In counties I represent, like Potter, the Verizon answer was to put up numerous tower sites and provide wireless service to homes but it seems to me there is still a gap, still places that don’t get the hardline or a very good signal from the tower sites,” Causer said, adding, “Did your commission have a role in that?”

“We did have a role. Chapter 30 said upon completion of companies plans, consumers are to get broadband within 10 days of request but it is not current FCC speed, commonly referred to as ‘Netflix speed’,” Witmer said.

“The commission has overseen those plans and companies have come into compliance,” he added.

“How do we know they complied?” Causer asked.

“Companies filed compliance plans and reported on those. And since then we put information on what consumers can be entitled to, but we don’t enforce those speeds,” Witmer said.