Maps produced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) show that the vast majority of Pennsylvanians have broadband access, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. In order to get a clearer picture of on-the-ground broadband access and availability, a team from Pennsylvania State University proposed a research project for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania (CRPA) that would analyze millions of speed tests from around the state. A few staff members from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance were recruited to help with the research: Hannah Trostle and Hannah Bonestroo created the maps for the report and Christopher Mitchell contributed policy recommendations.
A Growing Problem in Rural Counties
The team collected more than 11 million speed tests in 2018 using the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) platform, which allows users to conduct tests on their actual broadband connections. When the M-Lab’s data was compared to the FCC’s Form 477 speed data, certain discrepancies became apparent. Researchers found that there are actually zero counties in Pennsylvania where at least 50% of residents have access to broadband.
The findings also showed that not only are median speeds slower in rural counties compared to urban ones, but the discrepancy between FCC data and the measured speeds collected by M-Lab has grown significantly in rural counties over the last few years. This signifies a growing problem for policymakers hoping to bridge rural Pennsylvania’s digital divide. Without a clear and accurate analysis of connectivity, determining where and how funding should be used is difficult.
Next Steps for Pennsylvania
Rural communities can face serious economic impacts due to a lack of affordable, reliable, broadband access, so local leaders are motivated to improve access for residents and businesses. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania is one of a number of states with laws on the books that restrict municipal broadband, so governments that are willing to invest in broadband infrastructure are often discouraged or flat out prevented from doing so. Some have nonetheless come up with creative solutions to improve local connectivity, but legislatively empowering all Pennsylvania communities to pursue whatever model works best for them would be a big step forward.
As policymakers search for ways to mitigate the challenges of getting connected, we are hopeful that this report’s findings are a useful new data source and inspire other states to complete similar research.
We discuss this report on episode 361 of the podcast.
Photo of farm in Pennsylvania by fishhawk [CC BY 3.0]