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Broadband Internet Service in Rural and Urban Pennsylvania: A Common Wealth or Digital Divide?

Amy K. Glasmeier, Lawrence E. Wood and Andrew N. Kleit

While metropolitan regions across Pennsylvania enjoy a variety of broadband, or high-speed Internet, services from pioneering companies, there's a lack of broadband competition in rural areas.

This means that now and possibly in the future, many residents and businesses in these areas will have access to only relatively inferior broadband service. In fact, rural areas need these advanced telecommunications infrastructures to attract new business and industries. These services are essential for spurring entrepreneurial activity, creating jobs, and supporting telecommuting workers who live in rural areas.

To improve the competitiveness of all communities in the state, Pennsylvania needs to guide the coordination and future development of broadband services to ensure a consistent level of high-quality, reasonably priced services to all rural and metropolitan areas.

The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a bipartisan legislative agency, has issued a new report, "Broadband Internet Service in Rural and Urban Pennsylvania: A Common Wealth or Digital Divide?" It reports that Pennsylvania's telecommunications providers are among the country's corporate leaders in broadband telecommunications infrastructures. And yet, inaction, poor coordination and limited cooperation among providers and communities could jeopardize the availability and effectiveness of this new technology for rural users.

Business users depend on the Internet for communication, accessing and transferring information and data, advertising, sales and purchases. Many firms indicated they transfer large amounts of data, for which broadband Internet service is far more effective than dial-up service. In the report, broadband services are defined as technologies that allow users to connect to the Internet at 5-10 times the speed, if not a few hundred times, of a dial-up connection.

For the 2.8 million residents and thousands of businesses in Pennsylvania's rural communities, broadband is a critical link to the future. Interviews with rural businesses in the state indicate that Internet use is vital to their success. But not everyone has access to affordable and high-quality service. While broadband services are readily available in metropolitan areas, some small towns, non-metropolitan communities and rural areas lack access to it. More important, the lack of competition in broadband in rural areas often leads to low speeds and poor quality.

Several state-level government agencies now monitor, evaluate and promote the use of broadband. The Department of Education, the Public Utility Commission and the Office of Information Technology all are advocates of the technology. Federal partners include the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, and the Department of Agriculture s Rural Utilities Service. Based on more than 100 interviews with members of the telecommunications industry, and almost 200 interviews with user firms, the report concludes that the state needs to:

  • Actively assess the supply and demand for broadband services;
  • Develop an effective, timely way to share information and create policy among industry, government and community agencies;
  • Establish a policy definition of universal access as a way to measure and compare services.

Inferior broadband services affect social and economic problems in rural communities. Advances in health care and education may be limited to metropolitan areas if telecommunications services are inadequate in rural communities.

Pennsylvania can be a leader in broadband and telecommunications service availability in rural areas. Many of the telecommunications industries have already set up advanced infrastructures here. But figuring out how to serve the "last mile" remains a critical element if the state wishes to help rural Pennsylvania catch up on the information superhighway.

Amy Glasmeier is a professor of economic geography and Larry Wood is a graduate student in economic geography at Pennsylvania State University. They are lead authors of the report.