Penn State finds digital divide wider than reported for broadband internet in rural Pa. |
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Stephen Huba

The “digital divide” in rural parts of Pennsylvania may be growing instead of closing, according to a new study by Penn State University.

The “Broadband Availability and Access in Rural Pennsylvania” study found there isn’t a single county where at least 50% of the population received broadband connectivity, defined by the Federal Communications Commission as 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads.

Penn State conducted the study for the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, a legislative agency of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

While the FCC has noted more than 800,000 Pennsylvania residents do not have access to broadband connectivity, the Penn State study found such official estimates downplay the true state of the digital divide in Pennsylvania because they rely on self-reported data by internet service providers, or ISPs.

In Allegheny County, for example, the median broadband download speed was 20 Mbps, meaning 50% of the study respondents experienced faster speeds and 50% experienced slower speeds.

In Westmoreland County, the median broadband download speed was 12.3 Mbps.

In both cases, FCC maps show the counties as having 25/3 Mbps broadband service availability.

Unlike the self-reported data reflected in the FCC maps, the Penn State research team conducted its study in 2018 by collecting more than 11 million broadband speed tests from across the state and found that median speeds did not meet the FCC’s criteria to qualify as a broadband connection.

What’s more, by combining the 2018 data with a historical archive of an additional 15 million tests from Pennsylvania residents, the Penn State study found that, since 2014, the discrepancy between the ISPs’ self-reported broadband availability and actual speed test results has grown substantially in rural areas — but not in urban areas.

“The take-home message from these analyses is this: It appears that official broadband maps are becoming less accurate over time — particularly those for rural areas — and the methodology used by the FCC not only overstates broadband speeds and availability but also shows results that are less and less accurate year after year,” the study said.

The Penn State study comes on the heels of an FCC report released last week that was criticized for overstating the availability of high-speed internet service.

“This research mapped out the levels of actual connectivity speeds that Pennsylvanians experienced while participating in a broadband test,” said state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Williamsport. “The maps produced from these tests show that a digital divide in Pennsylvania is real, and that connectivity speeds are substantially slower in our rural counties.”

Commenting on the Penn State study, Gov. Tom Wolf said, “Broadband is as essential in today’s society as electricity. Not having broadband limits your ability to do business, find a job, access information and so much more. Our lack of broadband access keeps children from accessing online assignments and homework and deters businesses from moving to our state.”

Wolf has introduced a Restore Pennsylvania initiative that he says will “bridge the digital divide” in communities across the state.

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