Disconnected

Fog rolls over Valley Wide Farm in Spring Mills, Centre County, which is owned by Bethany and Adam Coursen. Heavy cloud cover brings increasing difficulty in connecting to the internet in the rural valley. “Sometimes you can get it to load and sometimes you can’t," Ms. Coursen said. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

On the farm, spotty internet means trouble selling milk, slow downloads, constant frustration

A passing storm can be enough to knock out the credit card processor at Martin’s Feed Mill in Coburn, population 236, in eastern Centre County.

Still, the store’s owner, Eliza Walton, wasn’t prepared for what happened when she went to update the business accounting software for her store, which carries a line of feed and other products for cattle, chickens and other animals.

“I actually thought we had high-speed internet, but it took three days to download the latest QuickBooks update,” said Ms. Walton, 33.

Bethany Coursen of Spring Mills uses the internet in the office of her family farm, Valley Wide dairy farm. She examines her cows’ feed, milk production and ovulation data. The family’s robotic milker, the family’s biggest investment, gathers the data. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

It turns out that online connection speeds are like garden hoses: The bigger the hose, the faster data flows and webpages load. And in Centre County — home to a thriving Amish community in the center of Pennsylvania — the garden hose is pinched off, or missing entirely, according to a new study.

The study by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania found median broadband speeds in Pennsylvania’s urban centers were slower than the FCC standard. Yet they were much faster than rural parts of the state: 17.1 megabits per second of data in Allegheny County versus 6.8 megabits per second in Centre County, for example.

Pennsylvania broadband speeds
The median broadband speeds recorded in tests conducted last year by M-Lab reveal speeds far slower than FCC estimates, especially in rural parts of the state. No county in Pennsylvania had median broadband speeds that met the Federal Communications Commission’s minimum standard of 25 Mbps.

Source: Center for Rural Pennsylvania | graphic: Ed Yozwick/Post-Gazette

PA BROADBAND SPEED ESTIMATES COMPARED

Centre County’s median internet speed was less than one-third the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of “broadband service.” That’s also less than half the recommended household speed for streaming a Netflix video.

The result is dozens of “paper cut slights” every day, complicating common activities such as personal banking, submitting a job application or getting homework help for a ninth grader, said study author Sascha Meinrath, who is the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State University.

“That is hitting rural areas extremely hard,” he said.


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Statewide, some 800,000 Pennsylvanians do not have access to broadband services, including more than 520,000 people in rural areas, according to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, which classifies 19 of the state’s 67 counties as rural. But Mr. Meinrath said connectivity problems are common even 20 minutes outside urban areas.

Broadband access is a festering sore in rural Pennsylvania, where being left out of the modern age is splintering already strained relations between people who live in the sticks and those living in larger towns.

“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Miles Township Supervisor Eric Miller, 34, who lives in Rebersburg, a tiny village about 30 miles from State College. “No, we don’t have the population that cities have, but it’s time to live in the century we’re living in instead of the 19th century.”

Too few customers

Valley Wide Farm owner Adam Coursen of Spring Mills stands in misty rain to take a phone call outside his barn. ''Adam sometimes has issues getting voicemails,'' said wife Bethany Coursen. ''They don’t always come in in a timely manner so, you know, he’ll check and there’s nothing in his box and then all of a sudden all these voicemails from a couple days will drop in at one time. So from a business perspective that’s a bit of a challenge.'' (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

In State College, population 42,430, residents can choose among at least four internet service providers and order groceries online from the local Wegmans. Life is very different in rural parts of the same county.

The economics of the disparity are simple: There are too few customers in rural America for big broadband companies to invest in stringing cable and raising wireless communication towers to reach them.

Dairy farmers Bethany and Adam Coursen are among the small business owners hard hit by Centre County’s connectivity breakdown, a reality that only became apparent after they took out the biggest loan of their lives.

The public’s thirst for the milk used in breakfast cereal, hot chocolate and quiche recipes has been declining for at least 15 years. Although a state agency sets the price that processors pay farmers for their milk, market conditions are stressing the historically important dairy industry. Dairy farming accounts for an annual $253 million economic shot to Centre County, which boasts of 160 dairy farms and 10,561 cows, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dairy farmers hit by the dip
Although the price farmers get for their milk has been up in recent years, the price is still down from a peak in 2014.

Note: One hundredweight is equal to one hundred pounds.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture | Graphic: Chance Brinkman-Sull/Post-Gazette

Four years ago, the Coursens thought they had found a way to stay competitive on their rolling 615-acre farm: a $500,000 robot milker.

There was just one thing.

“Where’s your internet?” the equipment installer asked.

A cow is milked by the Coursens’ robotic milker. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

“We don’t have it,” Ms. Coursen, 41, answered.

“That’s going to be a problem,” the installer said. The robotic milker wouldn’t work without internet access.

“It was the part we really didn’t think about,” Ms. Coursen said later. “We knew nothing about the internet.”

The Coursens are hardly alone: 29% of U.S. farms don’t have access to the internet, according to the Department of Agriculture.

What came next for the family was a lesson in the cost of living offline and finding workaround solutions.

 

 

Accounting by hand

Bethany Coursen carries buckets of food to a group of heifers. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Pennsylvania ranks second in the number of dairy farms nationwide, but the margins are thin: 1.2%, according to a 2018 analysis by the Department of Agriculture. Adam Coursen, 42, said his overhead costs exceeded the USDA’s estimate, so his margin on milk was thinner still.

 

(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Mr. Coursen also grows soybeans — 88 acres last year — but the U.S.-China trade spat pushed down soybean prices 13% through January, fueling an overall loss of $40,000 for the farm in 2018, he said.

So, saving pennies on overhead expenses matters. That’s why the robotic milker — with transponders fitted for each cow and providing a real-time dashboard view of everything from the stage of the cow’s ovulation cycle to the amount of milk produced — seemed like a home run for the Coursens. The Penn State University graduates have 60 cows.

And — eventually — it worked out as a good move, minus the ease of connectivity and the lower costs that most people in cities enjoy.

A group of small heifers eat their morning hay at the Coursens’ farm. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Comcast and Verizon, big internet service providers that serve State College, a 25-minute drive from the Coursens’ farm, offer basic internet service packages starting at $39.99 and $34.99 monthly respectively for advertised speeds up to five times faster than the median speed in Pittsburgh. But most of rural Pennsylvania doesn’t have the towers or cable network necessary to deliver the service, leaving at least a half-million residents in the dark.

Including cellphone and satellite TV service, the Coursens pay about $250 a month for broadband access that slows to a crawl with passing storms — a downside of satellite internet access. Ms. Coursen still finds it faster to do the farm’s business accounting by hand.

For the robotic milker, which eliminated the need for two employees and made for healthier cows, the Coursens use a cellular hot spot. It handles the basics but is too slow to allow reliable remote troubleshooting of the equipment or the convenience of using an app to monitor cow activity by a phone.

Still, it was a workaround that made the investment in the milker work, even if it wasn’t perfect. Lost were the expanded business opportunities that fast, reliable broadband access could bring. With better internet access, the farm’s line of specialty pork and beef products could be marketed online instead of by word of mouth among friends and relatives.

“Those inconveniences impact your business, regardless of what business you’re in,” Ms. Coursen said.

Rural America left behind

A Verizon 4G jetpack sits on the Coursens' farm office desk. The family needs internet access for the farm's robotic milker, and the jetpack is a workaround solution. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

The inconveniences include paying more for broadband for poorer service than that delivered to people who live in cities, said Andy Bater, director of the Centre County branch of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, a Camp Hill, Pa.-based group that represents agricultural interests.

“The cost of the service is roughly twice as much at the farm than in New York City” where Mr. Bater, 58, has a second home. “It’s a big frustration for me to see how horrible it is in rural areas: You don’t have the speed, capability or reliability, and you pay more just because you’re not on a cul-de-sac in a suburb.”But critics say the FCC estimates are inflated and that government incentives for providers to expand connections have fallen far short, leaving rural America behind.

Everywhere people turn in rural America, they’re blocked.

An FCC report last year concluded that “broadband services are now being deployed to all Americans on a reasonable and timely basis,” with 61% of rural areas having access to high-speed internet. But critics say the FCC estimates are inflated.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s answer to rural Pennsylvania’s slow connectivity speeds is a $4.5 billion initiative that would be funded by a new fee on natural gas drillers. The state already taxes gas drillers on each well they sink. Mr. Wolf is proposing to tax the amount of gas extracted to fund his Restore Pennsylvania program with the promise of bringing rural areas into the digital age.

Under Mr. Wolf’s plan, the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Program would make money available for companies, nonprofits, local governments and others to build the towers and other infrastructure needed to expand internet access. The administration put the cost of bringing high-speed broadband service to every house in the state at $715 million.


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Earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden proposed a $20 billion investment in rural broadband as part of his campaign.

In Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled Legislature has spurned the governor’s gas severance tax every year he has been in office since 2015, so the prospects for funding his plan are uncertain. Details of Mr. Biden’s rural broadband investment haven’t been released.

Mr. Wolf’s gas severance tax is also opposed by the Centre County Farm Bureau. A spokesman said many farmers receive royalties on gas production on their lands and worry about what the tax will mean to their checks.

Do you have Wi-Fi?

At the end of a long day, Adam Coursen walks down the winding road that leads from his dairy farm to his home. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Farmers aren’t the only ones smarting from life offline.

Even people who want to get away from it all want to stay connected online, said Beverly Gruber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association. Newer recreational vehicles clogging the summer highways come equipped with cellphones at a time when mobile phones are ubiquitous.

It can make a difference when campers are choosing a place to vacation.

“They used to ask, ‘Do you have a swimming pool?’” Ms. Gruber said. “Now, they ask if you have Wi-Fi.”

It’s a big issue for owners, she said. “You can struggle through and use paper, but it’s not the way of the world.”

Of 230 members polled, between 10 and 12 campgrounds have “major problems” with broadband access, Ms. Gruber said.

Haves and have-nots

Bethany Coursen hoses off the tank where the farm milk is electronically transferred from the robotic milker. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Beyond lost business opportunities and efficiencies, the digital divide is feeding a growing gulf between people who live in rural and urban areas — the broadband haves and have-nots, said Misty Patcyk, 43, who lives with husband Paul in the tiny Centre County village of Julian, which is in the southwest center of the county.

“When they look at the map, they can say we have internet access, but in reality we don’t,” she said. “It’s completely useless.”

Julian is about 15 miles from State College, but it could be on a different planet, digitally speaking. Ms. Patcyk’s husband, Paul, 45, drives 15 miles to the library for a reliable internet link, which isn’t available where they live.

“These are things that start to bother people,” said Ms. Patcyk, who moved out of State College in the late 1990s because rents were so high. “It’s just too expensive to live in town.”

Alex Coursen, 14, left, backs up a trailer of hay bales as his father, Adam Coursen, gives him direction from behind. Bethany Coursen said that overcast weather can make transmitting a signal nearly impossible. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Like sparsely populated areas everywhere, some of the rural-urban differences in Centre County are budget driven: School children in State College were issued laptops years before students got them in the Bald Eagle School District, where the Patcyks live with their three children.

The differences are cultural, too, with hunting, political conservatism and self-sufficiency the norm in rural areas but much less so among residents of State College, where many professionals live, Ms. Patcyk said. The broadband breakdown is exacerbating those differences.

They can say we have internet access, but in reality we don’t.

Many rural areas have been savaged by the steady migration of people to urban centers for the past 100 years, David Swenson, associate scientist of economics at Iowa State University, wrote in an article published in May in the Conversation, an independent, nonprofit publication based in Boston. Non-farm employment in Centre County grew by 9.2% between the Great Recession in 2008 and the economic rebound in 2017, he found, while many rural areas were left behind.

“The facts are clear and unarguable,” he wrote. “Most of the nation’s smaller urban and rural counties are not growing and will not grow.”

Ms. Patcyk’s neighbors have a name for folks who live around State College, where the population has been ticking up in recent years: “university types” — a term she said is sometimes used derisively.

“People in town don’t seem to understand what life is like outside town,” said Ms. Patcyk, who grew up in Pleasant Hills. “Everywhere people turn in rural America, they’re blocked. We’re just forgotten about.”

Kris B. Mamula: kmamula@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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