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Bringing High-Speed Internet to Rural Pennsylvania

Photo courtesy of Rafael Lopez for theIspot.com

Photo courtesy of Rafael Lopez for theIspot.com

Access to the Internet and other advanced communications technologies remains out of reach for many of the state’s 2.8 million rural residents. Researchers and extension educators are looking at ways to change that for individuals, businesses, schools, social services agencies, and health care facilities.

While telecommunications providers may be willing to offer high-speed access to rural customers, the cost of infrastructure remains an obstacle. Companies invest where they will get the highest returns, “and that sure isn’t rural communities,” says extension educator Bill Shuffstall. “In areas where there isn’t adequate demand—often rural communities—we need to identify anchors that justify the expense of building that network infrastructure.”

An anchor can be a school, hospital, business, or group of businesses, he explains. He is working to get various institutions and businesses to cooperate to bring advanced communications technologies to their communities. A hospital could be an anchor, with a need for doctors, labs, pharmacies, insurance companies, and other medical facilities to communicate with one another. “In many rural communities,” says Shuffstall, “schools are the largest potential users. But all of these anchors need a guaranteed level of service and larger amounts of bandwidth. The problem is, in many cases, an anchor such as a hospital might get a grant to put in its own communications network. So we build multiple networks rather than joining forces to get better service at a lower cost to everyone.”

Dan Brockett, extension educator in Venango County, echoes Shuffstall’s concerns. “We need to get past the notion of ownership and think about the greater good,” he says. “We need to make sure individual projects fit into a bigger framework. That’s why public/private partnerships make sense. I try to help rural communities figure out how they can serve all sectors, including industrial, residential, education, technology, and health care.”

Shuffstall and other extension educators are also performing research and education on the impact of open-access networks—networks that are open to multiple private sectors rather than owned by one company. “These networks allow more people to share in the core infrastructure and pay back the investment,” he says.

Shuffstall keeps the big picture in mind as he works with rural community leaders. “We need to ask ourselves, as a state, as a nation, is the sustainability of rural economies and rural communities important? Do we want our rural businesses to stay competitive in the twenty-first century? If we do, then we have to ensure this critical infrastructure is present.”