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Digital divide: Test data shows broadband internet lacking in rural areas of Lancaster County

  • 8 min to read
Digital divide: Test data shows broadband internet lacking in rural areas of Lancaster County

Every month for the past nine years, Geoff Broome has called or e-mailed Frontier Communications to complain about his internet service.

The issues are numerous. If he wants to send a work email, for instance, Broome has to ask his wife and two kids to disconnect first. Streaming movies is next to impossible, and Broome often travels to coffee shops to conduct business meetings on public networks.

The reason? His home, south of Quarryville, is at the end of a single DSL line that provides internet to his entire street. As a result, Broome’s service shuts off 10 to 100 times a day when too many of his neighbors browse the web.

How strong is broadband near me?

To start, hover over any dot.

The greener the dot, the stronger the broadband.

The size of each dot represents how many tests were performed in that area.

This map, explained

  • Internet speed is measured by how long it takes to download information (like watching a YouTube video) or to upload information (like posting picture of your dog on Facebook)
  • Each dot on the map represents an average of upload and download speeds at a particular location, according to speed tests from Measurement Lab.
  • The FCC defines "broadband" as:
    • 25 mbps download speed
    • 3 mbps upload speed
    • mbps = megabits per second
  • This map includes results from close to 60,000 speed tests
  • The tests were collected between January 1, 2017 and July 3, 2019.

Technicians at Frontier have told him there is no plan to improve his service, he said. His next-best option would be to buy satellite internet, which is spotty and expensive, or pay upward of $10,000 for Comcast to build out service to his home, he said.

Frontier Communications did not reply to an email.

Broome’s story is one of many that illustrates the choice between substandard internet and costly upgrades that some Lancaster County residents face as web access becomes increasingly important in the modern world.

speed table

While Federal Communications Commission data indicate that broadband internet is available to every part of Lancaster County, an LNP review of thousands of consumer speed tests and conversations with county residents portray a sharper digital divide between the haves and the have-nots of broadband access.

The tests, collected by Measurement Lab, a platform that measures internet speed, show that web access is greatly lacking in smaller, more rural areas of the county and is far from perfect in its urban centers.

Kirkwood in Colerain Township, at the southern end of Lancaster County, for instance, has an average download speed less than a third of the FCC’s standard for broadband access as measured in recent Measurement Lab tests. 

In Lancaster city, more than half of the tests conducted exhibited download speeds lower than the FCC standard.

Gov. Tom Wolf has made increasing broadband access to rural Pennsylvania a cornerstone of his  proposed “Restore Pennsylvania” legislation. For people like Broome, the upgrade could not come soon enough.

“Frankly, I’ve been to Third World countries that had faster internet — for free, mind you,” Broome said.

Mapping the data

Internet speeds are measured in megabits per second, abbreviated Mbps. The FCC defines broadband as having a download speed of at least 25 Mbps and an upload speed of at least 3 Mbps, abbreviated 25/3.

A map created by LNP from Measurement Lab speed tests illustrates which areas surrounding Lancaster County experience the best and worst internet speeds.

The map, bound by Harrisburg  to the west and Chester County to the east, the Maryland border in the south and Lebanon city in the north, shows that while most of Lancaster County has access to adequate internet speeds, many rural and small-town areas like Ninepoints in Bart Township, Denver  borough and Bainbridge in Conoy Township are lacking.

Bowmansville in Brecknock Township bottoms out the list with an average download speed of 1.12 Mbps, just enough to send an email, while Willow Street leads Lancaster County with an average speed of 32.6 Mbps.

The spots where broadband is stronger or weaker are not necessarily far apart, either. While Elizabethtown enjoys an average download speed of 28.6 Mbps, for example, speeds in nearby Maytown average just 16.1 Mbps.

Across all the data included in the map, download speeds average 29.9 Mbps, while upload speeds average 14.1 Mbps.

The map is based on tests conducted between Jan 1, 2017, and July 3, 2019.

‘Utopian, optimal conditions’

The stark contrast between the test data and the FCC’s claim originates in part from a provision in the agency’s self-reporting policy. Internet service providers (ISP) can claim to serve an area so long as they supply or would be able to supply internet to just one household within a census block.

(Census blocks are geographical designations used by the U.S. Census that contain anywhere from 600 to 3,000 people.)

A June study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that while the FCC’s most recent maps show full broadband availability across the state, there were no counties in Pennsylvania where at least 50% of people received “broadband” as defined by the agency.

“(The data is) predicated on these utopian, optimal conditions,” said Sascha Meinrath, the lead researcher of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania study. “This data is notoriously inaccurate for predicting on the ground realities.

“It is reliable in terms of what the ISPs are reporting,” Meinrath said. “The problem is when the FCC uses this as a proxy for actual, on-the-ground speed.”

The FCC is developing a new way for ISPs to report their data that will be more precise and able to identify gaps in coverage, a spokesman for the agency said.

"Our existing data collection by census block on Form 477 has been an effective tool for targeting broadband support to the least-served areas of the country.  But now that we are moving to fill in the gaps in broadband coverage, we need better data, which the Digital Opportunity Data Collection will provide," he said.

Brian Herrmann, a spokesperson for the Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania, a public advocacy organization for cable companies, said that cable providers offer broadband access equal to or above FCC standards to 95% of the more than 5 million households in the Commonwealth.

It is up to each household to choose which speeds it needs and can afford, Herrmann said.

But the 95% figure avoids the question of whether companies actually provide service to an area, said Barry Denk, the director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.

“Let us take an average census block of 1,500 (residents). If the ISP provides 25/3 Mbps to five of those people out of 1,500, they are allowed to declare that that block has access to 25/3 Mbps,” Denk said.

Indeed, FCC data indicates that 97.7% of residents in Lancaster County have access to three or more ISPs that provide 25/3 Mbps speeds, according to its online broadband mapping tool.

“Broadband providers report data at the census block level, and may not offer service to every home in every block in which they report service,” the site reads. “The calculations used to create the graphs treat every location as having service, and may, therefore, over-estimate broadband coverage, particularly in areas with large census blocks.”

There are areas across the commonwealth where the best service is DSL, Denk added. Only five out of 18 DSL providers in Lancaster County report maximum download speeds equal to or above 25 Mbps,  according to the Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development.

“There is a legitimate question about the willingness to pay. But to use that as the basis for the response from the FCC is a deflection,” he said. 

‘I’m kind of handcuffed’

Though he pays $130 for a bundled Comcast plan that is supposed to provide him download speeds between 50 and 75 Mbps,  Will Parsley regularly averages 23 Mbps, he said.

The provider is Parsley’s only option because no other ISPs serve his apartment building in downtown Lancaster, he said, and the building does not allow for satellite installation.

Comcast has failed to provide a long-term fix for his low speeds, and given his past dealings with the company, Parsley said the only way to improve service would be to threaten to cancel his plan — which he can’t do without another service option.

“I’m kind of handcuffed to Comcast. It really stinks, I wish I had other options,” Parsley, who works in data governance for a bank, said.

In Parsley’s case, home Wi-Fi speeds might vary based on several factors including the age and setup of a device and the number of devices on the same network, Comcast said.

Richard Tregidgo runs a small organic fertilizer business out of his home in Holtwood in Martic Township. With Frontier DSL, the best upload speed he can get is 1 Mbps,   he said, which means he has to verify everything he sends to customers over the phone.

Downloading videos or photos takes a long time, Tredgidgo said, and his internet will often cut out in a storm when the lines get wet.

Living on a farm surrounded by the Amish community, Tregidgo said Frontier and other providers will  likely not expand or improve service in  his area.

“Frontier is probably appropriately named here,” he joked.

Broadband providers will not build out to underserved areas if their take rate, the number of customers who commit to buying services, is too low, said Sheri Collins, the acting director of  Wolf’s broadband initiatives.

“The broadband issue is very complex, and from a provider’s perspective ... they need to look at each opportunity as a business case,” Collins said.

Regarding Broome’s case, Robert Grove, a spokesman for Comcast, said it is not economically feasible for the company to build out to some low-density areas.

“In general, we want to serve as many customers as is geographically and economically feasible, and continuously evaluate opportunities to deliver our innovative technology to new and existing customers,” Grove said.

Working for a solution

After having some time to step away from the solar energy business he helped found, Tim Beiler is setting his sights on a new venture: broadband internet for rural Lancaster County.

The name of his company will be Upward Broadband, Beiler said, and he hopes to provide internet speeds that include 100 Mbps for downloading and 60 Mbps for uploading through antennas that share Wi-Fi from towers to homes, much like how a cellphone operates.

“We want to give people better options,” Beiler, currently a partner at Paradise Energy Solutions, said. “Rather than building out networks on the grounds, we plan to use point-to-point antennas to get to our customers. The (network) reliability is high, comparable to other infrastructures.”

Upward will target underserved areas of southern Lancaster County first, Beiler said, and continually reassess how much infrastructure to deploy based on demand. He said the mid-tier plan would offer 25 Mbps for downloading and 5 Mbps for uploading for $69. 

Beiler’s company has done little besides registering its name but hopes to be operational before the end of the year, he said.

Last year, the Wolf administration awarded $35 million to providers willing to expand service in seven Pennsylvania counties, not including Lancaster.

Through Restore Pennsylvania, the administration is pushing for up to $715 million to give grants to organizations who build broadband infrastructure in rural areas throughout the  state.

The program would aim to serve underserved or unserved areas primarily, Collins said.

“The important thing to understand is it would not be our intent to overbuild an existing network,” she said.

In Lancaster city, expansion of the LanCity Connect community broadband service remains on hold because of legal wrangling between MAW Communications, the Reading-based firm behind the initiative, and PPL. As of this spring, fewer than 300 customers had service, LNP reported.

LanCity Connect runs on a fiber-optic network and offers speeds ranging from 50 Mbps ($35 plus fees) to 1 Gbps ($90 plus fees).