This past summer, two reports were issued that have real meaning to the agricultural community.
First was a report from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) revealing just how much rural Pennsylvania lags behind neighboring states and the entire continental United States digitally. It showed that 64 percent of Pennsylvania farms had internet access in 2020. This compared with 82 percent of farms nationally and contrasted with internet access by farms at 80 percent in Maryland and Delaware, 91 percent in New Jersey, and 81 percent in New York.
Second, was a report from the Joint State Government Commission which presented specific proposals as to how Pennsylvania can reach the goal of universal access to high-speed broadband. This report was mandated by Senate Resolution 47 to establish a broadband think tank to research policy options and recommend public policies. The Pennsylvania State Grange is the only membership rural organization chosen to be part of this effort (link).
Universal access to high-speed broadband has been the Pennsylvania State Grange’s top legislative priority for several years and we are excited that Pennsylvania is on the cusp of making this goal a reality. House Bill 2071, which creates a broadband authority to target funding to currently unserved and underserved areas, is poised to be on the governor’s desk by the end of the year. The authority will be the single commonwealth authority on broadband to disburse the funding provided by the federal infrastructure bill.
Funding from the American Rescue Plan, as well as the infrastructure bill, is welcome news for rural Pennsylvanians who have been hit hard during the pandemic as increasing services moved to online platforms. Many of our Grange members found themselves in the untenable position of residing in low-density areas, too far away from the broadband equipment, and with limited access. This made telemedicine, work commitments and remote learning nearly impossible. In fact, reports of high school students who had difficulty graduating from high school due to being in a last mile situation have been heard all too often.
Help is on the way for Pennsylvanians in this unfortunate situation. Funding given to Pennsylvania counties has begun to be deployed into rural areas. While there is certainly no one size fits all technology when discussing broadband, one technology that rural counties are increasingly turning to to meet the needs of citizens in low-density areas is fiber optic lines. Investing in fiber optic lines could be a real solution, a long-term solution, to unserved areas of Pennsylvania whose businesses and citizens have a desperate need for broadband.
Fiber optic lines are a reliable and efficient way to address rural broadband needs. The speed fiber provides, coupled with the low maintenance, make fiber effective. Fiber optic cables can save on long-term maintenance costs in areas of the state that are not as accessible and are flexible to transition customers as their needs change. It is no wonder many counties are turning to new and improved technologies to help connect our most rural communities.
The Pennsylvania State Grange is excited to be an integral part of policy decisions as they are being made on the topic of broadband. Pennsylvania is on the verge of connecting communities with technology they desperately need, and we encourage policy makers to continue the push to true universal broadband.
Wayne Campbell is president of the Pennsylvania State Grange. The Pennsylvania State Grange was founded in 1873 as an advocacy organization to promote the interests of farmers, families, and rural communities in the Commonwealth.