Broadband – Leveling the Playing Field

(as printed in The Clarion News, December 29th, 2022 edition)


Broadband enhancement has become an agenda item taking center-stage at counties across rural America.  The COVID-19 pandemic, aside from its obvious impact on the health and wellness of communities, has created one of the greatest economic events of this generation.  Economic events of this size have the capability to “flip a switch” at the legislative level, creating a new sense of urgency for lawmakers, policy advocates, and local leaders to meet. Broadband, particularly in rural America, illustrates this well.

Pre-COVID, broadband enhancement was mostly left to the market.  Internet service providers (ISPs) largely decided which areas were connected by following a simple metric – population density.  More densely populated areas made the most sense for investment due to the stronger likelihood to creating more new customers with the investment of fewer resources.  For example, fiber internet, the gold-standard of internet connectivity, roughly costs $50,000 – $100,000 per mile to deploy.  In a densely populated residential area, one mile of fiber could offer connectivity to potentially thousands of homeowners.  In a rural setting, where homes are fewer and farther apart, only a fraction of homeowners might connect to a fiber line compared to an urban/metropolitan area.  This simple reality has made the investment for ISPs in rural America a poor business venture.

Fortunately for rural Americans, fallout from the pandemic has flipped that switch.  Prior to the pandemic, internet connectivity was viewed as an amenity – something desirable or useful.  Internet was well-engrained into the business world, however, many could have opted out of its use if they so desired.   Following the COVID-19 restrictions, then guidance, the quality of life for those without internet connectivity drastically fell.  Students could not attend class, patients could not see their doctors, and workers could not work from home. Internet, like gas and electric, became a utility.  Those without it, through no fault of their own, were left on their own.

In Clarion County, internet connectivity across all townships and boroughs remains a work in progress.  To complicate the discussions around solutions, the goalposts have shifted regarding the definition of “high-speed internet.”  Largely prior to COVID-19, the FCC determined that high-speed internet was measured by 25 megabits per second (MPS) download and 3 MPS upload.  With the rapid enhancement of broadband technology over a short period of time, plus the overall adoption of internet use across all industries and sectors worldwide, the FCC has proposed a new speed threshold of 100 MPS download by 100 MPS upload.  As a result, it can be generally assumed that only fiber, rather than cable, DSL, or other mediums, can deliver such speeds.

So, what does that mean for rural areas like Clarion County?  How do local leaders offer solutions to address the widening digital divide? In simpler terms, the complication of the problem calls for a series of phased solutions.   Short-term solutions for areas with near zero connectivity options should be prioritized for implementation.  Wireless broadband remains a viable option for quicker implementation.  Although wireless cannot meet the FCC’s new 100/100 MBPS speed thresholds, it can stand the gap while more long-term solutions are funded and implemented.  A framework for broadband deployment that can be scaled over the years must also be identified.  Following that framework identification, investment into the middle-mile and last-mile wired connectivity must be pursued.

It is fortunate that work such as this is already underway in Clarion County.  In 2021, Clarion County received a $1.1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to deploy fixed wireless internet from tower locations throughout the county.  In addition, the Clarion County EDC received a $50,000 ARC grant to fund the Clarion County Connected Broadband Engineering Plan.  With this two-pronged approach, Clarion County has embarked upon bringing short-term wireless connectivity to key areas in the county, while concurrently investing in long-term planning.  The Engineering Plan is expected to be completed in early 2023.  Upon its completion, Clarion County will possess a “roadmap” for broadband projects ahead, consisting of middle-mile mapping, as well as targeted last-mile.  Too, the plan will give Clarion County the credibility it needs to win future grants, keeping in mind the Federal funding that will be flowing into Pennsylvania in 2023 and the years to follow.

The challenge remains significant, and though no solution will be felt immediately, Clarion County has taken long-range scope approach toward bringing internet connectivity countywide.