Providing high-quality, consistent internet presents a problem for rural communities across the nation and residents in parts of Lycoming County are among those who suffer spotty or zero coverage.
It’s certainly not a new issue – Three years ago, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf created the Pennsylvania Broadband Incentive Program, which provided up to $35 million in financial incentives to entities interested in expanding rural access to broadband internet.
A brief primer
Broadband is another name for high-speed internet, which is defined as having a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and a minimum upload speed of 3 Mbps, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Downloading refers to receiving data, while uploading means sending data.
High-speed internet, or broadband, can be delivered to a structure by four methods — cable, DSL, fiber and satellite.
Prior to broadband, most households accessed the internet via a dial-up connection that utilized telephone lines. Dial-up provided a speed of about 0.056 Mbps.
Cable internet uses a coaxial cable, which also provides cable TV to a home, and can reach speeds of 500 Mbps, but that depends on which plan a subscriber purchases. The bandwidth, or amount of data capable of being transmitted at one time, is shared among all subscribers, which can result in slower speeds when more people are using it.
DSL stands for digital subscriber line and it also uses phone lines. DSL speeds can range from 5 to 35 Mbps, and this method tends to be the most widely available option in rural areas.
Fiber is far less common in sparsely populated areas. It uses fiber optic cables to transmit the data and, depending on the area, download speeds can reach 1,000 Mbps. According to BroadbandNow.com, about 44% of Pennsylvanians have access to this internet service option, with the best coverage in the southeastern and west-central parts of the state.
In March 2020, Lycoming, Union, Clinton and Northumberland counties collaborated to partner with local internet providers and state and federal programs to get $2.5 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Additional matching funds and loans mean each county will receive about $1.9 million.
Back In 2018, Wolf’s goal was to ensure “every Pennsylvanian has access to high-speed internet by 2022.”
Will that happen?
Scott Kramer, principal IT specialist, and Mike Fisher, assistant executive director, both with SEDA-Council of Governments, which is organizing the multi-county effort, are optimistic.
But another internet provider is investigating the possibility of moving into the rural valleys and wooded areas of Lycoming County, and its potential to provide download speeds of 150 Mbps – to start – is attracting quite a following.
At his home in Mill Creek Township, business owner Matt Henderson is more than three months into using a beta program of Starlink, a satellite internet service developed by SpaceX.
“My house is in a valley outside of Montoursville. It’s geographically challenged,” Henderson said. “We have woods all around us and mountains to the north and south. We have no access to cable or DSL.”
Prior to using the beta test version of Starlink, Henderson relied on a local wireless broadband option but received only “pretty low speeds for a long time.”
He had been following SpaceX for a few years when Starlink and its beta version were announced.
“About seven months ago, a buddy of mine told me they were doing beta tests,” he said. “I did the research and found there were two options – you could be put on a waiting list or get the dish right away.”
Henderson filed his address with Starlink and was happy to learn he could start the testing phase right away.
Starlink isn’t his first experience with satellite-sourced internet.
“Ten or 12 years ago, we used HughesNet, which is another satellite provider,” Henderson said. “Latency was a problem. The satellites had a much higher orbit, and livestreaming was limited because you had that lag.”
To put it succinctly, latency means delay. It refers to the amount of time it takes for data to be transferred between its original source and its destination. It is measured in milliseconds, but latency can still cause a problem, especially for users who expect to be able to react in real time.
“Gaming is highly dependent (on low latency). It’s also very important for Zoom calls, so our conversation can take place like a normal conversation,” said Dr. Steve Brady, executive director of the Covation Center in Williamsport, who also runs a business from his home near Rose Valley Lake in Gamble Township.
Better internet can have an impact for all ages in all stages of life.
“We can start with the trivial,” Brady said. You can see pictures of your grandkids and do video chats with them.
“But it’s more than chatting or sending emails. Businesses can begin to compete, share information and drive the economy,” he added.
People in rural areas, especially senior citizens who might not be as readily able to leave their homes and travel to more populated areas for basic health care, could take advantage of telemedicine options.
“They will be able to visit with a doctor, send them (their) readings,” Brady added.
Starlink’s service offers a low latency because the satellites it uses are launched into a low orbit around the earth. According to the company website, Starlink satellites are more than 60 times closer to Earth than traditional satellites.
The satellite option would bypass many of the current struggles with providing high speed broadband to rural regions, which often are shrouded in trees and behind hills, unable to see communication towers throughout the region.
The site also projects that beta users will see speeds between 50 Mbps to 150 Mbps.
“The speed I’m getting is anywhere from 30 Mpbs to 120 Mbps,” Henderson said. “It’s been within that window that they advertise and it’s definitely more than we need.”
His previous service delivered about 2 Mbps, he said.
“I see this as a potential broadband solution,” Henderson added.
That “low lag time” contributes to his bright outlook toward Starlink.
“I’m pretty pleased with it,” he said. “We’ve had multiple users, but (service) has been consistent, which is great.”
Henderson’s “driving factor” in finding a better option stems from his family’s needs and the existing technology’s failure to deliver.
His business, Henderson Consulting, is based out of his home. The COVID pandemic shut down schools and colleges in 2020, causing his children to need the internet to attend class virtually. Then, of course, there’s the entertainment aspect, “streaming Netflix and (Amazon) Prime.”
“There’s a set amount of bandwidth that’s coming into your house and you’re sharing that with three different people when it’s barely enough for one person,” Henderson noted.
“With any internet, you have ebbs and flows based on everybody’s network traffic,” he added. But service is “markedly better with Starlink (and) it’s only going to get better.”
Not everyone is 100% onboard with Starlink and its low-orbiting satellites.
First, there’s the cost.
“They do charge a $500 fee for the hardware — a dish and a modem,” Henderson said. “It’s definitely more expensive than just (a typical) internet service.”
The service itself is another $100 a month.
“My options were limited,” Henderson noted, “rent an office space or invest $500 or $600.”
For a businessman like he is, the startup fees may be a minor inconvenience, but other rural residents may find them unattainable.
“The upfront cost to get the actual equipment might deter people from signing,” Kramer said.
However, according to a SEDA-COG-commissioned broadband feasibility study compiled for Lycoming, Clinton, Northumberland and Union counties, the immediate costs may not be much more than the costs of broadband spread out over the course of a year.
The study, completed by Design Nine Inc. during the summer and fall of 2019, revealed that the average U.S. household pays $67 a month for home internet use.
“Usually rural areas either pay more and/or get a lot less for their money,” states the study, which can be found online here.
Using data available at that time and prior to the COVID pandemic, the study wrote this about high-speed internet options:
“The only DSL offering advertised speeds better than 25 Mbps comes from Windstream but its availability is spotty except in four zip codes. Verizon DSL is almost as expensive but does not come close to 25 Mbps. Xfinity cable services actually show up as the least expensive services meeting 25 Mbps.
“However, past experience has shown that the low rate will go up significantly in the second year. Most cable services go up year after year. Even assuming they were happy with the speed and choice of the lowest priced services we found, your typical Lycoming County family would spend $1,920.00 annually for internet, TV, phone and cellphone. That price would likely be well over $2,000 in the second year.”
Using only the beta pricing scale for Starlink, costs appear to hit around $1,700 for a year of service.
Starlink shows “significant promise,” said Brady, who is anxiously awaiting his opportunity to try the beta program.
“Elon Musk, with SpaceX, has significantly changed the space launch industry. He’s driven costs down tenfold,” Brady said.
While it cost the former United Space Alliance about $422 million to launch a rocket, Musk’s SpaceX company realized a cost of about $50 million, Brady said.
“That’s eight times cheaper,” Brady said, adding that the rockets that launch the satellites for Starlink put 60 satellites into orbit at one time.
Musk, he added, is investing $42 million into the project.
Another potential drawback to Starlink may be that its satellites will have an impact on the purity of the night skies.
“Astronomers are concerned that more and more satellites might impact the dark sky,” Henderson said.
“You have to weigh both sides of the story,” he added. “The ultimate goal is to get access for places that don’t have it.”