House panel hears complaints about slow internet service in rural areas

August 17, 2016
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Mike Jones/Observer-Reporter
Kelly Keruskin of Morgan Township, right, testifies Wednesday morning about internet reliability problems in her community while Deborah Morgan of Mt. Morris listens. Order a Print
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Mike Jones/Observer-Reporter
Members of the state House Consumer Affairs Committee, which includes state representatives Pete Daley, Pam Snyder and Brandon Neuman, listen to testimony Wednesday morning in Waynesburg about internet reliability in rural communities. Order a Print

WAYNESBURG – As an elementary school teacher, Kelly Keruskin surfs the web at her Morgan Township home while creating interactive lesson plans, but she often has trouble sending an email because of slow internet speeds.

The library media specialist in the Jefferson-Morgan School District needs the newest technologies to teach her students, but she and many other people in Greene County and other rural areas struggle with slow or unreliable internet service despite a decade-old state law that mandated everyone in Pennsylvania have access to broadband by 2015.

Her elementary school also has problems with slow internet service, she said, which puts students in this area at a competitive disadvantage.

“The lack of sufficient internet speed has affected me as a resident, as well as an educator,” Keruskin said while testifying during a state House Consumer Affairs Committee hearing to discuss internet service in rural areas.

Keruskin, along with state regulators, consumer advocates and officials with several telecommunication companies, testified during a two-hour hearing that attracted hundreds to Waynesburg University’s Miller Hall to listen about how service can be improved and whether legislators should make changes.

“I feel like it’s 1998 with what you’re describing,” state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane, said. “It’s disturbing to me that a student does not have the basic necessary internet tools. We expect our students to be prepared.”

In 2004, the state Legislature updated the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission’s regulations on broadband development that required every resident in the state to have access to some form of high-speed internet service with at least 1.544 MB per second download speeds. Those changes and mandated download speed are now viewed as antiquated as faster technology arrived.

However, Deborah Morgan of Mt. Morris said she rarely even achieves even that lowered download speed and wants better network reliability from her internet provider Windstream Communications.

“We were promised high-speed internet. It started out pretty good. It has degraded over the past year,” Morgan said. “I’d like to get what I’m paying for.”

She asked state legislators and the PUC to update the laws and help expand more reliable service into her area.

“I’m paying for something that does not meet the federal or state definition of broadband,” she said. “Everyone complains about the same thing. If there are changes, it has to come from you or the FCC because it won’t come from us.”

Still, Windstream and other companies show a 100 percent compliance rate because the service is offered, according to PUC rules. Neuman questioned the accuracy of that compliance rate since it requires customers to contact their internet provider and prove the speeds are slower than advertised. But Keruskin said her complaints about service go unanswered and she was unaware until Wednesday that a dish satellite operator is working with Windstream to offer internet in her neighborhood.

Much of the scorn Wednesday was directed at Windstream Communications, which covers the vast majority of Greene County. State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, who requested the hearing, asked why she receives complaints about Windstream while other customers in the eastern part of the county with Atlantic Broadband are happy with their service.

“I can relate because I’ve had the same challenges as a Greene County resident,” Snyder said. “I think you’ve gotten the attention of the committee members.”

Jeanne Shearer, vice president of governmental affairs for Windstream, said the company complies with the law for its 13,500 lines located in 13 exchange areas in Greene County. She said the company offers nearly half of this area’s customers with internet service that is 10 to 25 MBs per second, but that it is difficult to achieve the fastest speeds in rural areas where its more costly to run fiber.

“Internet usage has exploded,” Shearer said. “Consumers are demanding more and more speed.”

Steve Samara, president of Pennsylvania Telephone Association, agreed upgrades are costly, especially in rural areas that are not as profitable as urban regions.

“There is a cost to do this. A million dollars here and a million dollars there,” Samara said. “We’re trying to get it to the right places, but everyone wants it.”

There is $2.2 million in federal Connect America Fund Phase II money earmarked for fiber upgrades in Greene County. Though that money should be used in this county to help improve internet infrastructure, it still can be spent anywhere else in the state and possibly other areas of the country. There are currently $23.7 million in unclaimed CAF II funds slated for Pennsylvania.

“Rising demand for wireless is also weighed with rising costs of constant investments across the area,” PUC Commissioner Andrew Place. Said. “In reality, broadband access available to rural areas by the FCC is a complicated issue, and one not limited to Pennsylvania.”

Place, a Greene County resident who raises sheep on his farm near Ruff Creek, said he understands complaints from the public, but PUC is merely enforcing the current law.

“I am a constituent. I know the issues I face on my farm deep in the valley. I get it. I live it. I bring that voice to the PUC. We cannot let rural areas fall behind,” he said.

As more people use the internet for entertainment, business, telecommuting and even health-related queries, Snyder said the legislature should revisit the regulations and make improvements.

“I want to see our internet providers beef up their service,” Snyder said. “But we legislators need to beef up (the PUC regulations).”

Snyder suggested people contact PUC through its website at www.puc.pa.gov, or, if residents are having internet connectivity issues, contact regulators by phone at 1-800-692-7380.

Mike Jones has been a news reporter since 2005, covering crime, state and municipal government, education and energy. In addition to working at the Observer-Reporter, he also has spent time at the Charleston (W.Va.) Daily Mail and Patch.com. He holds a journalism degree from West Virginia University.

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