The solutions considered in Pennsylvania to increase internet access as more work online

Pass or Fail

SEVEN VALLEYS, Pa. (WHTM) — Erika Beers loves her log cabin in the woods of York County, Pennsylvania.

The Beers home doesn't have access to reliable internet (WHTM Photo)
The Beers’ home doesn’t have access to reliable internet (WHTM Photo)

Birds chirp.

Animals outnumber people,

The setting is serene.

But inside the house, unsettled is a more apt description and peace and quiet are hard to find.

Beers is juggling one career, two dogs, three kids (two school age, one younger) and zero reliable internet.

“It’s really problematic for me,” Beers said. “I work for a company that hosts live conferences. And it’s problematic for my kids because they can’t attend school online.”

A few years ago, Beers and her husband tried to pay to hard-wire their home for better connectivity. The first quote was $10,000. Just as they were about to pull the trigger, “they came back with a quote of $68,000,” Erika said.

So for this family, and countless other parents trying to teach their children well, it’s a juggle and a struggle.

Erika Beers and her son work on online schooling (WHTM Photo)
Erika Beers and her son work on online schooling (WHTM Photo)

“I pay for someone to come here every day and help my kids with their school work,” Beers said. “And then I go to my best friend’s house and sit outside on her porch in every kind of weather and I work there.”

Beers adds that she spends a majority of the money she’s earning to pay for the kids’ helper during the day.

Millions may be without internet

It’s a familiar story to Pennsylvania State Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York). She has been a strong advocate for better broadband for years.

“Some will say that this issue is simply getting Netflix into every home and I say to you —’Nothing could be further from the truth,'” Phillips-Hill told her colleagues in support of several legislative fixes.

Erika Beers helps her daughter with her online schoolwork as her son learns on his own computer (WHTM Photo)
Erika Beers helps her daughter with her online schoolwork as her son learns on his own computer (WHTM Photo)

Phillips-Hill is is trying to merge all Pennsylvanians onto the information superhighway. She estimates millions in the state are un-served or under-served. And, unreliable connectivity is not just a rural problem.

“There are children in the City of Philadelphia who are now being all-virtually educated who still can’t get on the internet,” Phillips-Hill said.

She said a skeptical colleague told her she would never find the fix.

“When I first embarked on trying to find a solution, he told me it was a fool’s errand: ‘You’ll never get anything done.'”

That colleague was wrong.

Legislators work on solutions

Four statewide, bi-partisan hearings, a special commission and a 220-page report later, real solutions are in sight.

One bill would steer tax credits to incentivize companies to hook up ignored customers, like Beers, and low-income families like those in poor Philadelphia neighborhoods.

State Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill presents a solution to broadband access (WHTM Photo)
State Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill presents a solution to broadband access (WHTM Photo)

Another bill focuses on eliminating onerous regulations like required maintenance of landline telephone infrastructure, what some call the “Dodo bird” of 2020.

“They (companies) are still required by state law to provide that service all across the Commonwealth and invest in that infrastructure, at great expense to them, which means that money is not being invested into the services that people not only want but they also need,” Phillips-Hill said.

Where there are electric poles and wires there could also easily be internet, Phillips-Hill suggests. But it’s not so easy.

“If a rural electric cooperative wants to run a line of broadband, they have to go back and renegotiate all of their right-of-way agreements,” Phillips-Hill said. So, another bill would cut that red tape.

How soon could changes happen?

The pandemic has only heightened the urgency to find solutions and increased reliance on internet connectivity.

In Phillips-Hill’s favor is the fact that the problem hits rural and urban, Democrats and Republicans. That should help Phillips-Hill succeed in her quest. But Beers has kids to educate now and she’s heard political promises in the past.

“I appreciate that she’s making the effort, but the legislation is too slow to have any meaningful impact for us,” Beers said with disdain.

The senator knows there are skeptics. She’s certainly had plenty of those in the past. But she calls herself optimistic and thinks broadband fixes could pass the legislature by the end of the year and be signed into law by the governor, who has been supportive. But, there are only a few session days left and if the bills don’t get done, they’ll have to be reintroduced next year.

Even if they get a thumbs up, they need to get buy-in from the various companies, which is not automatic.

So, across Pennsylvania, fingers are crossed that broadband promises made will be promises kept.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

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