WBRE/WYOU Met With Commissioners To Discuss County Broadband Problems

LAPORTE TOWNSHIP, SULLIVAN COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) - There's a problem in many parts of Pennsylvania and it may be affecting the economy, healthcare industry and public safety.
The lack of reliable internet service, especially in the northern tier, is coming under the microscope by state officials.
Sullivan County is regarded as the "Gem of the Endless Mountains."
The beautiful views in the Laporte area hide a problem that is well-known to locals, the lack of affordable and reliable internet access.
"Broadband touches almost every other issue we're working on in some way, shape or form," Sullivan County commissioner Brian Hoffman said.
While divided by political party, the county's three commissioners are united in tackling dropped calls and spinning wheels of death.
"We have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to find alternative technologies for it," Sullivan County commissioner Wylie Norton said.
Norton believes the lack of connectivity is driving many young people away from Pennsylvania's northern tier.
"If we're sitting there and the computer is up-down, up-down, up-down or doesn't have the speed to even look at it or don't have it at all, they're going to get further and further and further behind," Commissioner Norton said.
The broadband problems are more than just annoyances.
Wayne County ranks 59 out of the commonwealth's 67 counties for upload speeds greater than 10-megabits per second.
With the county being only two hours from New York City, county leaders believe it's hurting economic development.
"It's a double-edged sword that right now is really hindering our capabilities," Wayne County commissioner Joseph Adams said.
Nationwide, nearly half of all states have an office dedicated to broadband initiatives and now Pennsylvania is among them.
In March, Governor Tom Wolf announced the creation of the Pennsylvania Office of Broadband Initiatives.
It's being led by Mark Smith, a former Bradford County commissioner, who understands the issue.
"Seventy percent of teachers now assign homework that requires internet access and every child should be able to have some internet access to have the same educational opportunity," Mark Smith, Pennsylvania's Executive Director of Broadband Initiatives said.
Smith's office is now offering incentives to private providers hoping to entice them to help underserved or unserved areas.
"We've inventoried all the state's assets, towers and buildings and all of the infrastructure that may be useful in building out and we're trying to figure out the best way to sort of utilize that to work with the private sector and bring down costs," Smith said.
A 2016 Federal Communications Commission report found that more than 800,000 people in Pennsylvania, roughly six percent of the population, still lacked high speed internet.
The governor's goal is to completely close that digital divide by 2022.
"It's a bold goal," Smith said.
That might sound lofty but Mark Smith believes it can be done.
He looks at other states, including neighboring New York, that have already tackled the issue.
"We have to set big goals if we want to accomplish big things and that's the way Governor Wolf thinks about this," Smith said.
Back in Sullivan County, those words bring hope.
"It's a process. It's slow. I wish we could do it tomorrow but unfortunately it's a slow process," Sullivan County commissioner Donna Iannone said.
For a county with only 6,500 people, Sullivan County actually has four different service providers.
Lawmakers know the solution isn't going to come from just one company but more likely a public-private partnership.
"We're encouraged that the providers are talking to us, they're meeting with us, they're taking us seriously," Commissioner Iannone said.
"There's a sense of urgency to get this done," Commissioner Hoffman said.
While Pennsylvania's northern tier may be rural, commissioners say they're not backwards and the time for change is now.
"Maybe our kids will be telling their kids, I can remember the day when all of a sudden I can watch a video all the way through!" Commissioner Norton joked.
For more information on Governor Tom Wolf's Office of Broadband Initiatives, visit: www.governor.pa.gov/broadband