Rural Pennsylvanians willing to pay for broadband, study says

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A recent study from The Center for Rural Pennsylvania confirmed what many have been saying: rural Pennsylvanians are often getting slower internet speeds at higher prices than urban Pennsylvanians. But it also suggested that rural residents are more willing to pay for broadband than urban residents.

Researchers with Pennsylvania State University and X-Lab, a policy and technology development institute founded and directed by Sascha Meinrath, Palmer Chair in Telecommunications with Penn State,  surveyed nearly 1,500 residents in the commonwealth.

The surveys asked residents about what service was available to them, what it cost, what their home internet speeds were and how much they would be willing to pay for 25 megabits per second download speeds.

Vince Phillips, legislative director for the Pennsylvania State Grange, which has advocated for rural broadband in the state, told Farm and Dairy the report confirmed what many already knew.

According to the study, published Nov. 30, only 34% of rural participants had a cable internet connection, while 54% of urban participants did. Fiber connections were a similar divider. About 17% of urban participants had fiber, and only 2.6% of rural participants had it.

On the other hand, rural residents were more likely to have dial-up, DSL or satellite internet. All of those are often much slower than fiber.

Policies

The study said Pennsylvania’s definition of broadband is currently 1.544 mbps download and 128 kilobits per second upload speeds. This is much slower than the Federal Communications Commission’s definition, which is 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload speeds.

The study recommended that the commonwealth update its definition to match or exceed the FCC one. It said the “antiquated” definition was causing harm by promoting substandard broadband service.

Phillips said updating Pennsylvania’s broadband definition could be tricky. If a bill simply says that Pennsylvania’s definition will follow the federal definition, a court could invalidate it for giving up Pennsylvania’s sovereignty — something that’s happened previously with worker’s compensation legislation.

Establishing Pennsylvania’s definition as a specific speed, such as 25 mbps download, 3 mbps upload, however, could make it hard to update in the future.

“That’s a tough nut to crack,” Phillips said. He is not aware of any current legislation on changing Pennsylvania’s definition of broadband.

This 2020 research follows a 2019 study confirmed that much of the state, particularly rural areas, does not have access to internet at FCC broadband speeds, despite FCC data that suggests otherwise.

Willing to pay

At prices of $60 per month and below, rural residents are more willing to pay for broadband than urban residents. Above $80 per month, demand for both rural and urban residents decreases.

“What that study did is showed that people in rural areas know that they need it, and if you know that you need it and it’s a matter of some urgency, you may not want to pay more for it, but you will,” Phillips said.

The study’s authors said if rural residents are willing to pay higher prices for the same broadband speeds, that suggests that lower adoption rates in rural areas could be due to the difference between the service speeds and types available in rural and urban areas.

The study suggested that Pennsylvania needs a statewide study to come up with a model for how much most low income households can afford to spend on broadband.

Funding

In the meantime, funding is still going out for broadband access. In Pennsylvania, 13 companies will receive a combined more than $368 million to bring broadband to nearly 185,000 homes and businesses over the next 10 years from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction, according to the FCC.

Phillips added that Pennsylvania only just passed legislation establishing more funding for broadband in November. He speculated that with limited state resources dedicated to broadband deployment so far, Pennsylvania may have missed out on some federal funds in the past.

“I believe firmly that there’s a lot of money out there,” he said.

The FCC said most Pennsylvania areas that were eligible for the auction will be getting broadband at 100 mbps download and 20 mbps upload speeds.

Two FCC commissioners have criticized the auction, stating that with auction eligibility based on maps that are widely believed to be inaccurate, many underserved and unserved people and businesses will be left out.

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