September 5, 2019

 

To:

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, Chair, Senate Communications & Technology Committee

Sen. Steve Santarsiero, Democratic Chair Senate Communications & Technology Committee

 

Dear Chairwoman Phillips-Hill and Chairman Santarsiero:

 

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau has significant concerns over the lack of reliable broadband service in rural communities, and what that lack of service means for our members who chose to live and work in rural Pennsylvania. We believe the state of Pennsylvania must develop a robust, long-term plan, to connect more of our rural communities to the internet. This should involve private companies stepping up to the plate, along with the assistance of the state and federal government. No one single piece of legislation will solve this problem. The state must develop a comprehensive solution.

 

Broadband service has moved past a luxury item, and is now part of the essential service that a household needs. So much of our world has moved to an online platform. Banking, insurance, homework and even medical consultation is now done online. Households that cannot access the internet are being left behind in the digital divide. The march of technology is not waiting for rural Pennsylvania to connect to the internet. Without a robust plan to connect those homes and businesses in rural Pennsylvania to digital networks, we face the prospect of shutting out a significant number of our residents from being able to fully use emerging technology.

 

This is not about entertainment. It’s not about Netflix or Facebook. This is about rural America staying competitive with their urban and suburban counterparts. It’s about our residents who want to live and work in rural Pennsylvania—and raise their children there.

 

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau represents rural Pennsylvanians. Our members have told us repeatedly about the frustrations they have over a lack of reliable services, and about the business tasks they can’t complete because high-speed internet is not available at their homes. Like every aspect of our lives, technology is evolving equally in agriculture. However, many of those advances require a robust backbone of fiber optics or mobile technology that can deliver high-speed service.

 

I want to share two examples that highlight the type of real world problems farmers face when trying to use technology to benefit their businesses—but lack high speed internet service.

 

Bethany and Adam Coursen own a dairy farm in Centre County—not too far from State College. A few years ago, the family made a significant investment in the future of their farm by installing a robotic milker. This technology allows a robot to do all the milking related labor on the farm, allowing the Coursens to focus on other farm tasks. In addition, the cows wear a device that collects relevant data that the Coursens can review to see if any of their animals need attention. However, the lack of high-speed internet service at their homes makes it difficult to get needed software upgrades for the equipment. It also prevents technicians from being able to remotely access their system and preform diagnostic repairs. They have been able to devise workarounds, using a cell phone hotspot, but this is in no way how the system was designed. The couple pays around $250 a month for satellite internet service that can go out when a storm passes overhead.

 

Another example is Timi Bauscher and her husband Keith, who live in northern Berks County. Their farm is within reasonable driving distance of Interstate 78 and the encroaching development from Lehigh County. The Bauschers have several on-farm businesses that require reliable internet service, including a farm market. Along with needing good internet service for their social media and e-mail marketing, the Bauschers uses a program to take credit card data from customers for sales.

 

Using their current internet service at the farm would be too slow for credit card sales. Each transaction would take several minutes, which is not customer friendly. Nor is it realistic to require cash only sales in a world that has largely moved to credit card transactions. Instead, the Bauschers uses a service that stores all of her credit card transactions. At the end of the day, she takes the device into her house and uses the internet to process all transactions, which can take upwards of 30 minutes or more. They keep their fingers crossed that no credit card transactions are declined. But the risk is worth the potential loss of business that would come from not offering credit card sales.

 

Those are just two of the multiple examples that highlight how emerging technology cannot be properly utilized by Pennsylvania farm families. Our farm families are committed to staying in rural Pennsylvania and running their small businesses here.

 

We need connections, and infrastructure. This issue has been compared to the efforts at rural electrification in the 1930s. That is a fair comparison. And much like those efforts to run electricity to our countryside, we have to establish a long-term vision for bringing those same rural communities into today’s technology.

 

A recent study by Penn State, and released by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, has highlighted a significant problem with our broadband connectivity. This study has shown that the actual on-the-ground upload and download speeds lags behind the speeds as advertised by service providers. The unfortunate bottom line is that the problem of broadband service is much worse than originally anticipated. While that is news that none of us wants to hear, hopefully it serves as a catalyst for moving ahead with a comprehensive broadband strategy.

 

Pennsylvania Farm Bureau is committed to helping lawmakers solve this issue. In particular, we are encouraged by a bill introduced by Rep. Pam Snyder that would require the Department of General Services to determine which state-owned assets could host broadband technology. In addition, we also see merits in an effort being led by Sen. Wayne Langerholc that would create a designated fund to serve as seed money for companies that want to offer broadband service in underserved communities. These are the type of multi-pronged efforts that are necessary to solve this complex problem.

 

Thank you for giving Pennsylvania Farm Bureau the opportunity to offer comments on this issue. We will continue to push and advocate for a comprehensive plan that helps bridge the digital divide.

 

Regards,

 

Darrin Youker

Director, State Government Affairs