Outside Gettysburg, A Battle for Better Broadband

In the heart of Adams County, Pennsylvania, not far from the site of the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg and where President Abraham Lincoln later delivered his famous 1863 Gettysburg address declaring “a new birth of freedom,” plans are being drawn up in the battle for better broadband.

In the borough of New Oxford, ten miles east of the county seat (Gettysburg), the non-profit media group Community Media of South Central Pennsylvania is leading the charge to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) victory for the approximately 102,000 residents spread out across the rural county’s 520 square miles.

But with restrictive state laws that protect incumbent providers from competition by not allowing municipalities to provide broadband service, and scarce funding for non-governmental entities to build broadband infrastructure, victory is far from certain.

Small Steps, Big Broadband Problem

The goal right now, Community Media’s Director of Operations Mark Wherley told us this week, is to secure $3 million to bring fiber access to 1,200 homes in New Oxford and Abbottstown, two of the 34 municipalities that make up Adams County, encircling Gettysburg.

Working in conjunction with the Adams County Economic Alliance, Community Media is looking to tap the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for funds to start building the network. Through RACP, Community Media would be eligible to receive between $1 million and $5 million, provided they are able to raise a 50 percent matching contribution.

“COVID kind of slowed us down in 2020, but we finished up the feasibility study toward the end of the year. We’ve been talking to local foundations to get the match. We have about 20 percent and are looking for the last 30 percent to execute the first phase of construction,” Wherley said, noting that if they are able to secure a total of $3 million it would pay for the initial network build. It would also cover the overhead costs for the first five years of operation.

The feasibility study and design plan were put together by Celerity and Skyline Technology Solutions thanks to a $30,000 grant from the Adams County Community Foundation and another $30,000 from the USDA’s Rural Business Development Fund. The plan calls for building the initial network to be 20 miles of mostly aerial fiber cable with a small portion of underground fiber.

The core network will consist of two headend network Points of Presence (PoP), the first to be located in New Oxford because that’s where the largest number of potential residential subscribers reside. While there are 879 households in New Oxford, network planners are aiming for a 50 percent take rate, connecting 602 subscribers. From New Oxford, the network will be extended to an Abbottstown PoP, about four miles away where there are 332 potential residential subscribers. A PoP is where other networks may interconnect and how the local network traffic will get to the larger Internet.

“The build will connect the two boroughs, and there are quite a few homes and businesses in between along Route 30,” Wherley said.

Using Calix XGS-PON technology to provide up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) symmetrical service, the network is being constructed in such a way to allow for it to be extended to the surrounding communities within Adams County as further funding becomes available.

A Protracted Struggle for High-Speed Connectivity

To get to this point has been a hard-fought slog.

About 10 years ago a county initiative known as Adams County Connected tried to entice the big incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to invest in broadband infrastructure that would reach unserved parts of the county. “They made some headway in the Gettysburg area but not the kind of robust high-speed network that’s really needed nowadays,” Wherley said.

It’s a harsh lesson in the “free market” economics practiced by the big incumbent ISPs in rural communities across the nation. In sparsely populated regions dominated by monopoly providers interested in maximizing short-term profits, it doesn’t make “business sense” for the big cable and telco companies to make large capital investments associated with quality broadband infrastructure. As hundreds of other communities have come to realize, if they want better broadband infrastructure, they’ll have to build it themselves.  

“Broadband is a big issue in the county so in 2017 we (Community Media) were going through organizational changes and the board re-evaluated the situation. Our initial idea was to set up a fixed wireless tower and expand out from there,” Wherley said.

They formed a broadband steering committee who then reached out to local engineering companies. “We found that if we wanted to do it correctly and for the long term, it should be a Fiber-to-the-Home network,” Wherley recalled.

Wherley is hopeful the push to bring reliable and affordable broadband to Adams County will be successful despite the daunting task ahead. One thing, however, is for certain, he said: the Internet access options available in Adams County now don’t currently meet the download and upload needs of residents.

“The Comcast starter package, which I have, is 100/10 (Megabits per second). But it feels more like 10/3 in peak hours,” he said. When Wherley conducted a speed test on his home connection this week, his intuition proved to not be far off. The speed test showed he was getting 6/5 Mpbs, even though he is paying for a 100 Mbps connection.

Statewide Problem  

The frustrating lack of reliable and truly high-speed broadband in rural Pennsylvania goes far beyond Adams County. A recent Pulitzer Center report assembled a sobering collection of realities for those in the state to consider:

The scope of the problem among Pennsylvania’s 3.4 million rural residents may not even be entirely known.

The Federal Communications Commission reported 800,000 Pennsylvanians did not have broadband connectivity, but those numbers are drawn from data self-reported from [I]nternet service providers. Kyle Kopko, the director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a bipartisan state legislative agency, estimates 253,000 rural households in Pennsylvania — 15 percent of the state’s rural households — do not have [I]nternet access at all.

A 2018 study conducted by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found through its collection of 11 million speed tests across the state that “median speeds across most areas of the state” did not meet the FCC definition of broadband: 25Mbps in download speed. (The Institute for Local Self-Reliance assisted in this research and analysis).

And according to that Center for Rural Pennsylvania study, there were zero counties across Pennsylvania in which at least half the population received broadband connectivity as defined by the FCC. That’s in spite of the fact that the FCC reported in December 2017 that 100 percent of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties had access to the 25Mbps standard of broadband.

Fortunately, as we recently reported, there have been state legislative proposals introduced that aim to promote network expansion in rural and unserved parts of the state of Pennsylvania. To read more about those bills read our coverage here