Bridging the digital divide

Local and federal efforts underway in Wayne

By Owen Walsh
Posted 12/16/20

HONESDALE, PA — Thanks to a federal funding program, two tech companies have secured more than $5 million to provide over 6,700 locations in Wayne County with high-speed internet access. It …

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Bridging the digital divide

Local and federal efforts underway in Wayne

Posted

HONESDALE, PA — Thanks to a federal funding program, two tech companies have secured more than $5 million to provide over 6,700 locations in Wayne County with high-speed internet access. It sounds like quite the boon—local leaders have been struggling to bring broadband to the county for years—but it’s a heavy-footed approach, and local, more immediate efforts are already underway to improve Wayne County’s internet speeds by the end of the year.

Internet woes are not unique to Wayne County; the Federal Communications Commission has found that nearly 40 percent of rural Americans lack access to high-speed broadband. That’s 10 times higher than people in urban areas. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic relegated vast swaths of the workforce to their home offices, this digital divide has put communities at a severe disadvantage: limiting business growth, access to telemedicine and online learning, among other issues.

Now the FCC is rolling out a new fix known as the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. In a nationwide push, the commission allocated more than $368 million to be auctioned off to companies to pursue expansion projects in rural Pennsylvania. Following the auction, the FCC estimated that 327,000 Pennsylvanians will gain access to high-speed broadband.

While more established internet providers secured money through the auction, one of the notable winners was Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, known better as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The company received an $856 million subsidy nationwide; more than $4 million is slated to be used in Wayne County, PA.

But it might be a while before local residents feel the impact of all that money. SpaceX’s internet service, known as Starlink, is experimental and not yet fully operational. And the FCC gave itself a decade-long timeline to get these rural communities connected. Wayne County Commissioner Jocelyn Cramer said that simply isn’t fast enough.

“Although this is great news, it’s got a 10-year rollout. We need to do everything we can to improve service and expand service now. It will make us more competitive against other counties in the future and remains our top priority on the Wayne Tomorrow initiative,” Cramer said in an email. “Rural Pennsylvania and New York counties are in competition with each other for an influx from the metropolitan areas. I think that will continue for several years. One of the priorities for anyone seeking to buy here is broadband.”

The commissioners have already invested more than $1 million of its CARES funding toward this priority, and unlike the FCC projects, that deadline is rapidly approaching. Companies need to complete their projects before the end of the year or return the money they were allotted.

Most recently, the commissioners approved a $33,000 grant for Hancock Telephone to install 1.5 miles of fiber optic cable in Preston Township, servicing 24 homes that had been on a waiting list to receive internet for learning and working from home.

“Since the CARES Act spending decisions needed to be done and implemented and serving people by December 30, unfortunately, nothing about future broadband expansion could be coordinated with the CARES Act effort,” Cramer said.

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