With cows sometimes moving faster than the internet, parts of rural Pennsylvania have been left behind in the digital age. Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, along with federal, state and local partners, is trying to change that.

“In the 1930s, some people said delivering electricity to rural areas was impossible, so young people left for electrified cities,” said Craig Eccher, president and CEO of Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative and Tri-Co Connections, headquartered in Mansfield. “Today, slow internet speeds are hurting education and work opportunities. In response to the needs of our members, Tri-County began investing in laying hundreds of miles of fiber optics.”

Eccher gave updates on Tri-County’s efforts to bring highspeed broadband internet to parts of Tioga, Potter, Bradford and Lycoming counties on a virtual public hearing Feb. 18. Hosted by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, the hearing also included testimonies from community leaders in Tioga and Potter counties.

“Route 49 especially – from Knoxville to Westfield – businesses, homes and schools have all been telling us for years how necessary faster internet speeds are,” said Kristin Hamilton, executive director of Develop Tioga. “Now, 2020 and COVID taught us this expansion is critical.”

The first electric cooperative in Pennsylvania to launch a fiber-to-the-home internet project, Tri-County began laying underground fiber optic systems outside Coudersport in 2019. The first customer was connected in April 2020 and since then, Tri-County has installed 500 miles of fiber optic serving more than 700 customers. Eccher said another 600 miles is planned this year.

“This has really opened things up to be able to provide instruction to students,” said Jed Hamberger, superintendent of the Oswayo Valley School District in Potter County. “None of this would have been possible without Tri-County.”

Hamberger said a 2019 survey found that about two-thirds of the student population were unable to do some school work online or things like video conferencing. He said thanks to broadband, the district was better prepared for remote instruction due to COVID and bad weather.

Eccher said with a total project cost of about $80 million, funding has been one of the biggest challenges to complete the 2,800-mile project over six years. Earlier this month, Tri-County announced it will receive $1.1 million in support every year for 10 years from the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund.

The co-op has also received additional funding through Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, the Pennsylvania Broadband Initiatives Program, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation.

When asked why Tri-County decided to go with fiber optics rather than wireless, Eccher said fiber provides a better-quality and “future-proof” connection.

“Wireless as total solution is tough; trying to push 1 gig is speculative,” he said, referring to the speed information is uploaded and downloaded on the internet connection. “With fiber, we’re offering 1 gig upload and download speeds. Someday, we’ll be able to scale to 10 gigs. It’s a game-changer.”

Bill Gerski, senior vice president for marketing and business development with Tri-Co Connections, added that download speeds on wireless connections only offer 10% of the upload speeds, but fiber offers equal download and upload speeds.

“We’re trying to eliminate a social and economic divide. We want to make sure customers have proper safety and electrical infrastructure,” said Gerski. “Senior citizens are one group that can be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 restrictions without highspeed internet.”

As broadband becomes more prevalent, the Potter County Education Council and Seneca Highlands partnered in 2019 to teach senior citizens how to take advantage of it.

The Seniors to Seniors program pairs senior citizens with high school seniors, who teach them how to use computers and the internet. Courses were held at the five senior centers in Potter County until the pandemic prohibited in-person gatherings.

Dr. Michele Moore, executive director of the Potter County Education Council, said the first phase of the courses taught skills like basic computer use and cyber security, and how to navigate websites, use search engines and create an email account. She said when it’s safe to hold the courses again, the second phase will include how to navigate government websites, shop and bank online, and use social media.

“The interactions between seniors and high schoolers were amazing to witness,” said Moore. “The program provided needs to support to older adults but in turn, students learned more about this older, more experienced generation. We quickly saw a relaxed and friendly bridge of the generational divide.”

For more information about the broadband project, visit www.tri-countyrec.com.

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