High-Speed in the Hinterlands
Jun 01, 2020 03:46PM
By Carrie Hagen
This past March, college freshman Tristan Byron chose to remain on campus when Mansfield University moved classes online to thwart the spread of COVID-19. As most of his classmates left to finish the semester at their homes downstate, Tristan knew his chances for maintaining good grades were better at Mansfield, where he had high-speed Internet access, than back in Genesee, along the New York/Pennsylvania border in Potter County, where his family had unreliable satellite service.
“I didn’t go home at first because of the Internet issue,” he says. “There is Internet [in Genesee], but it’s a little bit harder to access when you live a mile up a dirt road.” As social isolation protocol grew and campus restrictions tightened, Tristan, nineteen, grew tired of being one of approximately forty-eight students huddled inside a dorm complex built for several hundred. So he returned home, relying on the mobile hotspot he could set up with his phone to access his twenty-one credits of coursework.
Tristan’s professors handled remote teaching differently, with some emailing videos for students to watch, others relying on reading assessments, and others employing Zoom meetings to engage the class in discussions. All exams, of course, were online. During one timed assessment, Tristan’s Internet connection failed and he just missed the allotted time to upload his answers. The professor was understanding and let him resubmit.
What has been more difficult for him to complete from home is his Army National Guard service. After graduating from Northern Potter High School, he joined the Army and completed basic training before beginning his first semester at Mansfield this spring and serving in the Army National Guard. Amidst the pandemic, the Army replaced mandatory monthly weekend reporting with online course training. Spotty Internet service and slow download speeds delayed Tristan’s course module. It took him eight hours to complete assignments that should have only taken him three.
“High-speed Internet,” he says with frustration, “would save me hours of time.”
In 2019, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and the Federal Communications Commission reported that approximately 800,000 of Pennsylvania’s citizens (6 percent of the population) don’t have high-speed Internet access. Over 500,000 of these people live in rural parts of the state. Last month, Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative launched an ambitious, six-year program that aims to change the state of poor Internet connectivity in north central Pennsylvania: through its telecommunications subsidiary Tri-Co Connections, the cooperative is bringing fiber-optic broadband—the fastest of Internet connections—to its membership across 5,000 square miles and seven counties. Aimed at increasing economic opportunities and improving livelihoods in rural Pennsylvania by putting people in touch with better healthcare, educational resources, and professional prospects, Tri-County’s effort faced historic and herculean challenges prior to the pandemic that sent America into greater social isolation.
Internet access first came to homes and businesses in north central Pennsylvania through phone lines that facilitated “dial-up” connections. After plugging one end of a telephone line into a computer and the other into a telephone jack, users would dial a number that connected them online. Dial-up access faded in the mid-2000s with the rise of “broadband,” a word that essentially means “constantly connected online” through a wireless service that uses radio waves. Broadband customers have routers inside that connect their computer devices into a network, and modems that send signals between this network and the Internet. (When Internet connections drop—or crash, as some people say—often the modem needs to be reset to again find the right signal.)
Cable broadband uses cable television wires to connect customers who share bandwidth, the capacity to process and transfer data. So while customers receive fast access at some points in the day, speeds can slow dramatically during peak hours when more people need service.
Most Internet users in north central Pennsylvania have access through satellite service or DSL. Satellite—often the slowest option and largely dependent upon good weather—is available almost anywhere and at times the only choice for families like Tristan Byron’s who live outside of cellular service.
DSL (which stands for digital subscriber line) is the most common form of Internet access in the world. Transmitting signals through unused telephone wires, DSL-based broadband goes directly into each consumer’s home. Its speed, however, is often affected by the distance between someone’s home and the Internet Service Provider station (ISP). The further one lives from their service ISP, the slower the speed.
For two years, Katie Taylor of Coudersport experienced DSL’s shortcomings. Potter County’s only drug and alcohol prevention specialist, Taylor lives in a remote area with her two young school-aged children and her husband, Dave, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. Time and again, when she went to log into an online meeting, her connection would fail.
“It would crash multiple times a day,” Katie says. “One day I literally reset my modem twenty times.”
Leona Hilfiger understands the frustration. She has served as the office manager at the Carpenter Shop in Ulysses for nearly six years. A family-owned business for decades, the woodworking shop is known for its custom millwork and precision wood products. Leona says that most of the store’s orders and customer communication is facilitated online. “There are no phone calls anymore,” she laughs. “Pictures, drawings, and the profile of molds are hard to communicate over the phone.” At one point, the Carpenter Shop had satellite Internet, and it now uses Verizon DSL. Service is “intermittent,” Leona says, often requiring her to wait minutes before loading and sending emails.
Internet speed is dependent upon how much data can be sent and received—or uploaded and downloaded—per second. Sending emails or scanning websites doesn’t require very much data. Streaming movies requires more bandwidth; so does downloading songs, books, video games, and college lectures, uploading papers, conducting Zoom meetings, and having two or more devices using the Internet at the same time. Internet speeds of 25 Mbps (megabytes per second) should be able to handle all of these activities—if the connection isn’t interrupted because of distance between customer and ISP station, or bad weather affecting satellite reception, or too many people sharing the bandwidth at the same time.
On April 7, Tri-Co Connections connected the Taylor family with 100 Mbps of broadband service. It was the first of what will be hundreds of “fiber-to-the-home” installations in Potter County over the next several months, the first phase of an $80 million plan to bring fiber-optic service to all Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative members across 5,000 square miles within the next five to six years.
“Getting fiber is a game changer,” says Bill Gerski, senior vice president of Tri-Co Connections. “It crosses the digital divide and ends social and economic inequalities.”
Described by many as “lighting fast”—100 times faster than average broadband service—fiber-optic connections are made through fiber-optic cables, not telephone or cable wires. To make fiber optics, engineers make fiber units about the size of hair strands from plastic or glass, bundle them together, cover them with another layer of plastic or glass material, and wrap them in two more protective casings. These cables allow laser pulses to transmit light signals, which move faster than electric ones. Fiber-optic service installation is expensive because it requires the laying of new cables—and ones that cannot bend at that.
Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative’s launch of fiber-optic broadband in north central Pennsylvania is as historic as it is unprecedented.
“It has made us as an organization relevant again,” says Tri-County president and CEO Craig Eccher. “We are providing our membership with an essential service that it does not have.”
In the early 1930s, fewer than 6 percent of people in rural Pennsylvania had electricity, a utility enjoyed by approximately 90 percent of those living in urban centers. The Rural Free Delivery program of the postal service delivered news and magazines to farm families, and those who flipped through publications like the Saturday Evening Post would see advertisements for products they couldn’t use—like radios and refrigerators—whether or not they could afford them. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt aimed to change this in 1935, when he signed the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) into law as part of his New Deal relief program. The government hoped to build a stronger economic infrastructure in rural areas by financing electrical service and getting basic utilities to all Americans; Roosevelt’s administration hoped that by giving low-interest loans to private power companies, these businesses would extend their existing grids and recoup any expenses from their new customers—farmers. It didn’t work.
Electric companies knew they wouldn’t profit from rural expansion—that’s what kept them from doing it in the first place. Especially in mountainous regions like north central Pennsylvania, too few people lived too far apart in challenging terrain for utility companies to make any return on expended resources like manpower and equipment. One year after Roosevelt signed REA into law, 75 percent of Pennsylvania farms still had no electricity.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, farmers decided to do the work themselves. Gathering into regional cooperative groups throughout the state, they cleared land, dug holes, split rocks, erected poles, and strung wire. (In a 2008 article for Mountain Home magazine, Joyce Tice wrote of her uncle, Homer Tice, who dug holes for electric poles in Rutland and Sullivan Townships using only a nine-foot shovel and a nine-foot crowbar.)
Recognizing the reach and motivation of the farmers’ grassroots movement, the government quickly reorganized its plan and channeled REA monies through the cooperatives. Within five years, underserved rural residents united into fourteen electric cooperatives organized under the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association (PREA). Farmers recruited consumers by going from farm to farm, explaining to skeptics how indoor appliances, running water, and radio could not only improve lives but also aid production. Early cooperative customers paid a usage fee of two dollars a month. And for community organizations that couldn’t afford installation, members held fundraisers like ice cream socials at the Elk Run Methodist Church.
Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative incorporated in Mansfield during the late fall of 1936 as one of the fourteen member groups under PREA. Today it provides electricity to parts of seven counties: Tioga, Potter, Bradford, Lycoming, Clinton, McKean, and Cameron. And eighty-four years after its founders brought electricity to their communities, Tri-County has become the first of the rural electric cooperatives (which together serve more than 230,000 households and businesses and over 600,000 consumers) to bring what has become another utility denied to underserved populations because of cost and access: high-speed Internet.
“Our goal is to end the educational, economic, and social inequalities that exist between rural and urban communities,” says Bill Gerski. “To break down the digital divide.
Craig Eccher admits he didn’t know much about telecommunications when members of the cooperative started mentioning the discontent they had with their Internet connections in the late 1990s.
“I’m an electric and natural gas guy,” he says. “This is a whole different ball game.” He knew that broadband did exist in rural Pennsylvania, but only in pockets, and there was inadequate equipment to provide a reliable Internet network to the residents, business owners, and tourists who needed it. If he wanted to help Tri-County’s members, he needed help. And he knew who to ask. Craig reached out to long-time professional acquaintance Bill Gerski, a former cable executive who had worked with Time Warner, Viacom, DirecTV, and Sirius Satellite Radio before moving to Las Vegas and opening a nightclub. Bill’s wife had family in Coudersport, and when he would visit the area, he and Craig would get together for a beer and trade business stories. Craig would talk about electrics and acquisitions, and Bill would talk about cable trends. More than once, Bill had mentioned opportunities opening up for electric companies to enter the telecommunications game.
Bill says that fiber-optic installation offers a “perfect opportunity for electric companies in rural areas.” Because the companies already own the poles, they have an essential piece of the infrastructure. “It sounds complicated, but really we put up the poles, wire the strands of fiber, and drop them down into houses.”
Craig Eccher encouraged Bill to move back East, intriguing him with the opportunity to troubleshoot the challenges of providing affordable high-speed Internet to Tri-County’s membership. The main obstacles were those faced by the cooperative’s founders eighty years before: cost and terrain. In 2016, Craig’s team did a feasibility study to identify the financial cost of providing the 5,000 square miles of territory that Tri-County facilitated with fiber-optic cables.
“The return of investment was not great,” says Craig, on building an infrastructure through territory that hosted 5.8 homes per mile. But they didn’t give up. And their passion was shared by someone at the highest echelon of state politics: Governor Tom Wolf.
Noting the high cost of broadband infrastructure across Pennsylvania’s mountainous topography, Governor Wolf introduced a proposal in early 2019 aimed at helping municipalities purchase and install needed technology. Restore Pennsylvania—still on the floor of the state legislature—is a $4.5 billion bipartisan proposal that provides funds to “bridge the digital divide” across the state through a severance tax on the natural gas industry.
“One of the biggest challenges holding back Pennsylvania’s economy is lack of universal broadband access,” said Governor Wolf in announcing the Restore PA proposal.
Sheri Collins is the Acting Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Broadband Initiative. Having spent thirty-four years working in state government, she says that broadband access is a priority on “everyone’s” list. The problem is expanding it affordably across the parts of Pennsylvania’s “thick canopy” that present the strongest mobile connectivity challenges.
“Superintendents, students, commissioners, advocates,” says Sheri, “all want to be supportive and work to help. But they still have to demonstrate a profit.” According to her, the Restore Pennsylvania proposal reflected the “first time that a [Pennsylvania] governor has stepped up and said, ‘we are going to create an effort like this.’” The thinking behind the bill was that it would “gather resources to address our most critical issues in blight-ridden parts of the state.”
And although the bill hasn’t passed, its conversations have put companies like Tri-County Electric in touch with the financial resource opportunities it needed to ease investment risks.
“Federal programs are out there to help,” says Sheri. “But organizations have to overcome barriers. There are a lot of hurdles to jump.”
The main hurdle for Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative was finding a way to lessen the cost of its vision. Estimates showed a price tag of $80 million. So, under Craig’s leadership, the Tri-County team went to work on bringing in one grant at a time. It received $17.1 million from PennDot, $2.5 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission, and $33 million in subsidies from the Federal Communications Commission made available to eligible providers that could expand broadband in underserved areas. The cooperative also received $1.5 million from the state of Pennsylvania for the first phase of its six-year project: constructing 103 miles of above-ground fiber so that Potter County consumers near Coudersport could have reliable high-speed Internet.
Phase One of Tri-County’s buildout started in November 2019. Five months later, the company had constructed approximately sixty miles of fiber-optic cables, over half of what it would need to build to provide broadband service to between 1,100 and 1,400 residential, seasonal, and commercial members. The timing couldn’t have been more essential for Katie Taylor’s family. Nearly three weeks after Governor Wolf ordered the closure of non life-sustaining businesses to stop the spread of COVID-19, the Taylor household became the first in the Coudersport area to receive high-speed fiber Internet service. Now Katie can participate with uninterrupted service on online work calls while her daughter uses Google Classroom for schoolwork.
Sheri Collins says that she is “hopeful that this COVID-19 pandemic will shape policy and discussion.” Without the ability or opportunity to physically engage, more Americans than ever are struggling with two things that in some ways seem very different: isolation and occupation.
For some time, Tri-Co Connections has fostered a program called Seniors 2 Seniors, during which high school seniors help senior citizens understand technology so that they can benefit from online services such as tele-health appointments and video visits. Now, says Bill Gerski, the pandemic has only accelerated the need for people of all ages to have more virtual tools at their fingertips, and—especially for families that have multiple members at home—the ability to access these tools from more than one device at a time.
“We’ve also got to retain our youth,” says Bill. Tri-County is counting on broadband access to attract young adults with lifestyle and professional opportunities that they are otherwise leaving the area to pursue.
Back in Genesee, Tristan Byron agrees that the arrival of fiber optics “is definitely going to be a good thing.” As far as keeping young adults in the area, though, he says fiber-optic Internet access is going to have to do one thing in particular.
“I think it could help, but it’s going to have to find a way to make more jobs around here other than manual labor. People with mechanical experience can find things, but there isn’t much more.”
Right now, as an MU freshman and a member of the Army National Guard, Tristan plans to graduate from college, finish his Army service, and get a federal job, perhaps as a fishery biologist, somewhere out of the area. The Internet will probably help him find that job. And, says Bill Gerski, “High-speed broadband just may bring him back home.”
To pre-register for fiber-optic service, visit tricoconnections.com or call (833)-822-2010.