Most cellphone users have experienced the inconvenience of having a call go dead while driving along a country road. But what about the people who live at those dead spots?
Many residents of Rush Township and other rural pockets throughout the area say lack of high-speed internet and reliable cellphone service is a fact of daily life.
Service in Rush Township varies from house to house due to its many hills and valleys.
Hilltop residents like Diane McKinley have been able to drop their landlines for a cellphone, but others don’t have that choice. McKinley can get her internet through an attic window, while her neighbors in the valley just below bring in no 5G signal at all and can use their cellphones only while traveling away from home.
Neighbor Neil Wertz, just up the road, has decent phone reception in the house, but it disappears once he heads up to his shop, just a few hundred feet away. Yet, he has noticed unfamiliar cars pulling over right next to his garden, a local hot spot, to complete a call.
TV viewing and streaming are also challenging. Except for the Route 54 corridor, fiberoptic cable has not been run in Rush Township, according to Sam Haulman, general manager of Service Electric. That’s because, with such a sparse population along so many roads, it is not cost-effective to install cable at $40,000 per mile, Haulman said. So, TV in the hinterlands is mostly through Dish or Direct TV, and even that is not always feasible.
Cindy Dozpat lives on the side of a mountain. She said DishTV told her that picking up their satellite’s signals is impossible. Cellphone reception is good for her now, since Verizon installed another tower, but earlier she could use her cellphone only in her dining room, and only if she didn’t turn her head while talking. Even with better service, her Zoom still freezes sometimes in mid-sentence during a meeting.
For internet service without a cable option, Rush Township residents are left with several non-ideal choices, but have learned to improvise.
DSL through the phone lines is one very slow option, with decent internet reception but not enough bandwidth for streaming. That means no possibility of Netflix, Hulu or streamed sporting events.
The PA Statewide Broadband Plan released in November 2022 reports that approximately 5 percent of Pennsylvanians are “unserved” by high-speed broadband and many more are “underserved.” The FCC defines “unserved” as less than 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload. “Underserved” is less than 100Mbps/20 Mbps. Since DSL lines max out at 3 Mbps download speed, that puts its users in the “unserved” category.
Haulman said that DSL can’t handle higher speeds because it’s just a tiny copper wire. Just for comparison, the fiber-optic cable internet offered by Service Electric starts at 100 Mbps download and can go up to 2 gigabytes, depending on the plan chosen.
Frustrated, many rural residents turn to through-the-air reception.
“I’ve tried everything that is feasible,” said Mike Trelease, who lives on Erlston Road in Rush Township. During COVID, both he and his wife were working from home and his kids were on Zoom for school, which caused a family crisis. He finally settled on a combination of Starlink, a satellite-based internet, and T-Mobile.
“My setup is not cheap, but it mostly works,” he said. He said he chose Starlink because it has the least latency among satellite providers, but it’s not perfect. He said his setups require frequent tweaking of position to keep them working.
Reception, signal challenges
Most residents choose T-Mobile, AT&T or Verizon as their provider, but getting signal through a modem is still tricky.
Carl Beagle, who lives in a valley in Rush Township, keeps his modem in the garage looking out of a window, but “it has to be placed perfectly, with the cords to the side at 9 o’clock position to work. Anything else, it just quits.”
He also loses the server on cloudy days, or during storms. Reception is worse in the summer when leaves are on the trees.
Besides Rush Township, there are a few other rural pockets in the Danville area without good service. Duncan and Libby Beiler, who live in the far reaches of Limestone Township, have created their own personal hotspot, thanks to the tech talents of their son. Before that, they used HughesNet.
“It was awful,” said Libby Beiler.
“We are fully aware that Rush Township is underserved,” said DRIVE Executive Director Jennifer Wakeman, who has been working to bring economic development and high speed internet to Montour, Northumberland, Snyder, Union and Columbia counties.
She said that Danville and most of Montour County are in good shape for high-speed internet, but there are a few scattered unserved pockets, such as the low-lying areas of Limestone Township.
Obstacles to improving access
Running fiber-optic cable to every home would be the perfect solution, but “it’s a big hurdle to build a cable network in areas with low population,” according to Haulman.
Another difficulty is sharing poles with the utility companies. “In rural areas, many poles may be too old or too short or otherwise not designed to accept another attacher. If a pole needs to be replaced, the new installer has to bear the cost,” he said.
Getting approval for pole use also takes time.
“We’ve been waiting almost a year now for pole replacement authorization for a job that’s ready to go,” Haulman said.
Another problem is that “everybody’s needs are different,” said Haulman. “When we build an extension, we don’t get all the homes to subscribe. The rate is usually about 55 percent.”
“Cable is not a utility like gas or electric, where everybody uses it,” he said. Haulman said that’s why government grants and encouragement are so crucial in making it happen.
According to an email response from Senator Lynda Schlegel-Culver’s office, “in December 2021, a law was signed to establish the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority (PBDA) which was responsible for creating a statewide broadband plan and distributing federal and state monies for broadband expansion projects in unserved and underserved areas of Pennsylvania.”
She added that “The PBDA recently approved guidelines for a $200 million Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program and they began accepting applications this week.”
Locally this effort is directed by DRIVE (Driving Real Innovation for a Vibrant Economy), established in 2015. In January 2022, DRIVE launched a public-private partnership, combining a loan from Geisinger and CARES Act funding. According to its website, the $3.2 million were used to begin a fixed-broadband network in the five local counties, and they have added 16 towers to date. Service providers for this network are Sky Packet and Centre WISP.
That project is now complete, according to Wakeman, and DRIVE has submitted a new grant application to the National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) to increase the network’s reach. They are also working on an application for new PBDA grants.
At the beginning of 2020, federal government grants were given to companies to invest in internet service in unserved areas, but the company assigned to Rush Township was not able to follow through, which has delayed improvements in that area, according to Wakeman.
“Rush Township is a challenge,” she said. “We’ve been working on mapping to see where towers are most needed and would be most effective, given the topography.”
DRIVE’s fixed broadband network is a “non-line-of-site” system, which allows signals to go through tree foliage, though not hills. It works on radio technology, and the DRIVE network uses a licensed Citizen’s Band Radio spectrum for their system, according to Wakeman.
“We need to find the right pieces of land and get permission from the owners to build new towers,” she said.
Haulman is encouraged by the DRIVE project, but said “topography makes it hard for this to work for everyone. It will need to have towers everywhere.”
In its first phase, according to the DRIVE website, “60 percent of rural and underserved residents were expected to receive service.”
Potential customers can sign onto the Sky Packet website, skypacket.net, and enter their address to find out if they are included.
Will internet service to rural Pennsylvanians get better anytime soon? “I am hopeful,” said Haulman. “The new government grant programs have the possibility to make a difference.”
Wakeman said she is committed to the effort. “Areas that don’t have internet will not be on a level playing field in economic development with those that do,” she said.
In addition to bringing high speed internet to all of Pennsylvania, Wakeman emphasized another need, computer literacy for all.
“At present, only so many people will use what they have compared to the number of people served,” she said.
Statistics estimate that 1.2 million adult Pennsylvanians (14.6 percent) lack the skills they need to take advantage of broadband access. Digital literacy is yet another arm of the PA Broadband Authority mission.
“Rural areas have known for a long time that they need better internet, but the pandemic has brought this to national attention at last,” said Wakeman.
“There are lots of different solutions and we are working to find them,” she said.