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Broadband: what you need to know

Earth digger used to dig down cables for broadband connection in rural area
PinkBadger/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Earth digger used to dig down cables for broadband connection in rural area

What is broadband? And why is everyone talking about it?

According to the Federal Communications Commission, it’s an internet connection with a minimum of 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload speeds.

That probably begs more questions than answers.

Essentially broadband is a good, high-speed internet connection. An internet connection that you can work or learn from home without disruptions or service lags, apply for jobs online and download and fill out important financial and government forms. More than one device can run web-based computer programs efficiently and Zoom meetings and email work without worry. And it won’t break the bank.

As for why everyone is talking about it, the landmark federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $65 billion for broadband internet. The law includes $42.45 billion for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD). The money goes to states and territories to provide reliable and affordable high-speed internet connections. Pennsylvania received $1.16 billion.

Officials from the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA) are visiting communities throughout the state to discuss the funding and hear from residents about internet issues they experience.

The word broadband is broadly defined as any high-speed internet that is always on. It doesn’t interfere with home phone lines, like dial-up. No one needs to hang up a phone call to connect.

To broaden that FCC definition: if your internet speed is 15 megabits (mbps) per second one to two devices can check email and search Google at a time; only one device is able to stream music, according to the PBDA. It takes one hour to download a 5 gigabyte movie. A typical DVD holds about 4.7 gigabytes of data. So that’s a two hour-ish movie with deleted scenes, a blooper reel and some other extras.

If you have 300 mbps, you can stream movies, tv shows, Youtube videos and game in high definition on multiple devices. That 5 gigabyte movie takes 2 to 5 minutes to download.

Connecting through fiber-optic cable is the fastest option and it’s what the federal government hopes to expand with the funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

"COVID was the ultimate stress test for internet access across the country," said Julia Brinjac, PBDA digital equity program manager. "I think it's no coincidence that this bill passed in 2021."

Fiber connections use light instead of an electric current to transmit data. It's expensive because of the infrastructure needed. The cables can run underground, above ground and under the ocean. There’s a lot of digging involved.

The PBDA said using a cable modem to get online is the next fastest, followed by DSL. That comes over telephone lines but doesn’t disrupt telephone services, like dial-up. Satellite is another way of getting online. However, within the act, Congress determined satellite is not reliable. It will not be considered as a means to provide internet to unserved and underserved areas — two more terms the FCC used a lot during discussions about broadband.

If you live in an unserved location, that means there is no access to wireless internet service at speeds that meet FCC threshold. Underserved areas are locations where internet services meet or exceed that FCC definition but are lacking more power.

WVIA’s IT department suggests using speedtest.net to test your internet speed.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development’s website has a statewide Broadband Service Availability map.

According to the map, the western half of Susquehanna County is mostly unserved, while Southeast Susquehanna is served. The entirety of Bradford, the neighboring county, is mostly unserved.

If you zoom in real close, you can pinpoint exact locations. My house in Scranton and the entire block is served by Xfinity.

Making internet affordable is a requirement of the federal funding. Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro was at the Pittston Memorial Library on July 12 to discuss Pennsylvania’s broadband plan.

“I think, what folks can expect are reasonable rates ... kind of based on statewide standards," he said. "There'll be competition in the marketplace between the various internet service providers, which would also hopefully, bring down those costs."

The PBDA is in the process of creating a five-year comprehensive plan for the federal funding. They have to submit that plan by Aug. 12. The state also has to come up with a digital equity plan, which is due by the end of October. Part of that planning is holding Internet for All meetings across the state to hear from community members about their internet experiences.

During a meeting at the Lackawanna County 911 Center on July 11, Sheri Collins, asked the audience: "if your internet was an animal, what animal would it be? And why.”

The responses varied from a dead sloth and a rabbit but with a big dollar sign to a tortoise.

"It will finish the race but it’s pretty slow,” the audience member said.

Collins, a consultant with the PBDA, pointed out that everyone's access to internet is different.

"And that's what we've experienced across Pennsylvania," she said.

While in Luzerne County, Shapiro highlighted some of the issues people face when trying to get online.

"When parents need to drive their kids to the library in the next town over just to gain access to the internet or local workers can't go out and apply for a job that's posted online or doctor's offices don't have the modern tools they need to communicate with patients or consult with other specialists to be able to give a good health care outcome for someone. That is just evidence of how we are held back not as a county but as an entire Commonwealth," he said.

Once Pennsylvania’s plan is approved by the federal government, crews could then start laying cables, putting up towers and making the state’s new broadband infrastructure a reality, the governor said.

Shapiro said there are 276,000 Pennsylvania households, businesses and other establishments that do not have access to broadband, adding another 52,000 establishments have unreliable access.

"If you are one of those hundreds of 1,000s, of Pennsylvanians who lack internet access, you will begin to see activity in communities across Pennsylvania later this year, and then really ramping up early next year," Shapiro said.

The PBDA also received an additional $200 million, said Brandon Carson, director of the authority. That funding will be awarded to local governments, businesses and nonprofits that are working to expand internet service, he said.

Who lays down the lines will be dependent on a community’s workforce, said Shapiro, adding they’re already training workers across the Commonwealth.

"We want to make sure that where the need is greatest, we're identifying that and driving those resources out," he said. "But once we have that plan approved by the federal government, we can sort of post up to the neighbors and let them know okay, kind of here's relatively speaking where you are in the queue.”

Affordability, again, is a huge component to increasing broadband access. It’s one of the criteria of the federal funding.

"Internet service providers and others that apply for these funds to deploy services will need to disclose what their pricing plans will look like, various tiers of pricing plans, and that will be used to help determine how those investments are ... prioritized for various areas," Carson said.

The governor said the impact of no or slow connections holds the entire state back.

"It really is important to state the obvious that broadband connectivity or lack thereof, it's not an urban issue or a rural issue, it really is a Pennsylvania issue," Shapiro said.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.
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