No signal
Purchase Line high school students use their school Chromebooks in the cafeteria. Many of the pupils have no internet access at home. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
Indiana County tries to keep up, but lack of internet access stymies schools, businesses
October 20, 2019

In September, teachers in the Purchase Line School District in Indiana County passed out electronic notebooks to seventh and eighth graders to introduce them to the digital age. District high school students are scheduled to get the Chromebooks next year.

But the students are not allowed to take their computers home.

Although the school district buildings are wired with the latest computer gear and broadband access thanks to $1 million in investments over the past three years, about half of the system’s 850 students don’t have an internet connection at home.

That means teachers can’t assign homework that requires going online. For many Indiana County students, the internet’s promise as a learning tool goes dark when schools close for the day.

“We live in the dark ages,” said Purchase Line School Board member Ray Kauffman, 46, who lives in Mahaffey, a village where the local fire hall is heated with firewood and coal and where his family’s internet connection is spotty.

The Purchase Line Junior Senior High School marching band prepares to perform at the annual Cookport Fair. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
Before the first day of school, a group of Purchase Line Junior Senior High School teachers learned how to use online application Google Classroom. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
Residents from across Indiana County, including small communities such as Commodore, Clymer, Mahaffey and Cherry Tree, stand together to watch the Purchase Line Junior Senior High School marching band perform in September at the annual Cookport Fair. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

“Every time the wind blew, we lost our connection,” Mr. Kauffman said. “It was pathetic.”

The Purchase Line School District is about an hour and a half northeast of Pittsburgh, and like much of Indiana County, it has a rural vibe — pine-scented air, community fairs with carnival rides and prize farm animals.

At the 102nd Annual Cookport Fair, where the Purchase Line High School band performed on a sunny September afternoon, former band members were asked to step forward to be recognized among the fairgoers. As a handful of people came forward, the dozen or so band members played a soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace” while the crowd on the bleachers hushed.

Before the first day of school, a group of Purchase Line Junior Senior High School teachers learned how to use online application Google Classroom. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
Residents from across Indiana County, including small communities such as Commodore, Clymer, Mahaffey and Cherry Tree, stand together to watch the Purchase Line Junior Senior High School marching band perform in September at the annual Cookport Fair. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

The Purchase Line School District straddles two counties and covers a land mass 2.5 times the size of the City of Pittsburgh but with the population density of Oregon. The 145-square-mile school district has no traffic lights, no supermarkets, no public library.

Failure to get reliable internet access to the community isn’t for lack of trying. Among the ideas the school board has explored: wiring a bus with an internet hot-spot and strategically parking it in the district so parents and students could get online.

The only commercial district in Mahaffey includes a gas station, hardware store, pizza restaurant and bait shop. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)
Amish men walk past one of only a handful of businesses in Mahaffey. The town is one of Indiana County's poorest communities. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

But with so many dead spots, where to park the bus?

It’s not just school students who are struggling with connection issues. For people in Indiana County who do have an internet connection, the median speed is just 4.7 megabits of data per second — less than one-fifth the speed the Federal Communications Commission defines as basic broadband service — according to a 2018 Penn State University study. Cell phone connections to the internet are slower still.

And Indiana County residents are hardly alone: Some 800,000 Pennsylvanians have no easy way to sign on, according to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. Nationwide, about 21.3 million people can't get online at home, the FCC noted. Cost is among the challenges.

Average internet rates are related to household income. MOSTLY URBAN U.S. COUNTIES:
Source: U.S. Census | Chance Brinkman-Sull/Post-Gazette The poverty rate of the Purchase Line School District exceeds the rates for Indiana County, Pennsylvania and the U.S. POVERTY RATES

Progress comes at a price. There are now plans to extend internet connections to 60 businesses and 581 homes in parts of rural Tioga, Potter and Lycoming counties, thanks to a new $2.5 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission and $3.2 million in funding from the Tri-County Electric Cooperative. That prices out at about $9,000 per connection.

At that rate, getting broadband to the estimated 800,000 Pennsylvanians living offline would cost $7.2 billion or about one-fifth of the state budget.

A state Senate committee in September wrapped up its last hearing on what to do about Pennsylvania’s digital divide as Gov. Tom Wolf continued to talk up his $4.5 billion infrastructure improvement program aimed at getting the internet to rural areas with funding from a new tax on natural gas. The Republican-controlled General Assembly has already rejected Gov. Wolf’s proposed severance tax four times, so prospects are not good for funding.


Return on investment
Return on investment
Houses in Mahaffey.(Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

The crisis is acute in some parts of Indiana County, where probably hundreds of square miles of the 834-square-mile county lie outside the modern age, according to Byron Stauffer, executive director of the Indiana County Center for Economic Operations.

Internet service providers want the biggest bang for their buck, which means skipping over the hollows and back roads to serve clusters of customers in bigger towns and urban areas. “It’s a matter of return on investment,” Mr. Stauffer said.

A group of Purchase Line Junior Senior High School teachers learned to teach with online applications such as Google Classroom. On the first day of school, seventh and eight grade students were given Chromebook laptops. The school, in Commodore, is moving toward a more digital curriculum. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Putting specific numbers on the economic cost of poor internet service is challenging, but there’s little doubt that commerce is hobbled when small businesses and consumers can’t connect easily online. That is especially true today, when even simple credit card transactions depend on an online link and websites and social media have become the core of modern advertising.

Indiana County’s connectivity issues didn’t deter Philadelphia-based clothier Urban Outfitters from recently opening an 800,000-square-foot fulfillment center in White Township, just outside Indiana, Pa. The operation — key to the retailer’s push into prompt, direct-to-consumer sales — was expected to create 225 jobs. The company didn’t return a request for comment about the operation.

And internet access isn’t a problem 17 miles from the Purchase Line School District at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. But, in what is a concern for the local economic development team, the college — the county’s biggest employer — has seen enrollment slide 26% between 2012 and 2018, a trend that partly reflects a trend among state institutions of higher education.

File photo of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. (Keith Boyer)

As Mr. Stauffer looks for more economic development opportunities, he wonders about the difference that widespread public broadband access could make across Indiana County if it were easy to “be part of the 21st century.”

“Imagine if everything else was equal: How many people would want to live here in the rural area,” he said.

A 2018 study by the Purdue University Center for Regional Development concluded that every $1 invested in broadband returns nearly $4 to the economy.

The link between online connectivity and economic growth is well established, said Darrell M. West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

“Broadband is absolutely essential for job creation and economic development,” said Mr. West. “There is a strong tie there. Counties without good broadband access will just fall further behind.”



Struggles and Sheetz
Struggles and Sheetz
Driving through Blue Spruce Park. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

In Pennsylvania, some local governments have struggled to solve the internet access issue. In 2004, Philadelphia created a municipal broadband service for the digitally challenged. The effort dissolved by 2008 over technical and other issues. A similar effort in Indiana’s neighbor Cambria County in 2008 folded in 2013 when revenue fell far short of projections.

Indiana County’s own efforts to expand residential internet connections began around 2008 with an $18 million upgrade of its emergency communications system. The county’s towers were tricked out with gear needed for residential cellular and Internet access, leaving only what is called the “last mile” connection to get homes online.

But the high cost of stringing cables from towers to homes, along with the anticipated low returns from serving a sparse population, have kept internet service providers away.

“People know we’re really doing what we can to make this happen,” said Indiana County Commissioner Rodney D. Ruddock, a retired high school principal. “We have to find a model way of moving forward.”

Indiana County is continuing to invest. The commissioners recently agreed to spend $60,000 to extend cell phone access to Blue Spruce Park, a wooded, 650-acre reserve.

Roughly six miles outside of Indiana sits Blue Spuce Park, which has no cellular connectivity. In the background to the right is the county emergency communications tower, which does not work in the park. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

The upgrade will improve public safety: Blue Spruce has been a digital desert visited by 125,000 people a year, with no GPS, no internet or cell phone connections in case of emergency, despite the location of a county emergency communications tower in the park.

Meanwhile, the hunt for Wi-Fi sends residents across the country to places such as coffee shops, public libraries and some fast-food chains. That’s true in Indiana County, too, where the need to get online drives some to local eateries, including several convenience stores that Altoona-based Sheetz Inc. operates in the county.



Missing out on migration
Missing out on migration
Time lapse video of Purchase Line Junior Senior High School. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Indiana County missed out on the migration wave away from cities between 2016 and 2017. About 33,000 people nationwide moved into rural areas, which gained population for the first time since 2010, according to the census.

Indiana County’s population has been slipping for years, down 8% to 84,879 since peaking in 1980.

The national migration into rural areas has been attributed, in part, to the growing ability to do work and hold down jobs remotely — working via computer for an employer in Los Angeles or New York from a home office in a smaller, less expensive community. Not so in Indiana County.

“People cannot buy homes in rural areas if they need the internet,” said Tim Greene, a 54-year-old mortgage underwriter who ran into connection problems after moving back home to Indiana County after living 35 years in Virginia. “It’s not fair.”

Purchase Line School District in Indiana County is 2.5 times the size of the city of Pittsburgh with only a fraction of the population.

Fairness is sometimes mentioned by folks talking about the things that divide the city from the county, especially when the issue is Indiana County students not having online interactive study guides, current-events information and research capabilities — something most city dwellers take for granted.

A four-hour drive east from Purchase Line schools, a pile of Chromebooks also were distributed to eighth, ninth and 10th graders in the Bethlehem Area School District this fall.

Superintendent Joseph Roy admits to getting a “little outside my lane” in lobbying elected officials and business leaders for wider internet access in the Bethlehem Area, the state’s sixth largest school district, where kids get to take their Chromebooks home.

Clothes hang from a line in the backyard of a single level home, left, in Mahaffey, Indiana County. The number of kindergarten children in the district went up this year, as evidenced by signs of children's toys in houses like the one at right. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

“We have enough inequities between the resources kids have outside school,” he said. “We’re concerned that moving toward more digital content can make it harder for kids without internet access. I’ve been trying to pitch it as not just a school thing, but a regional economic development issue.”

Bethlehem is located in Pennsylvania’s thriving Lehigh Valley, where the region’s gross domestic product in 2017 topped $40 billion for the first time. That’s more than the sum of goods and services produced in either Vermont or Wyoming, according to a March report by the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp.

But here’s Mr. Roy’s pitch to business leaders: expanding the internet’s presence will continue the boom. He asks, “Is it really going to be acceptable for large areas to be without internet access?”

Stella Murdock, 13, left, of Cookport, and Bella Bartlebaugh, 13, of Glen Campbell, center, show classmate Jaylin Robertson, 13, of Burnside, how to print from his new Chromebook during their science class at Purchase Line Junior Senior High School. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)

Back in Indiana County, the frustration is building.

"The blight that we have is because we're rural, we have to overcome that," said County Commissioner Ruddock. "Families are trying to make it work. These kids are trying to do the best they can in a setting in which they are being forced to be handicapped with the unavailability of systematic, routine, commonsense fiber that would bring them up to a standard where they can be competitive in the real world."

Purchase Line schools director Sandy Fyock, 64, a retired private school operator, sees rural broadband as an issue of equality: A kid’s educational opportunities shouldn’t have to hinge on where the student lives, she said.

“We don’t want to be separating our kids into those who have and those who don’t have,” she said. “This is a huge problem, but we’re not giving up.”

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

A truck drives through Mahaffey, Indiana County, population 353. (Jessie Wardarski/Post-Gazette)



Kris B. Mamula
Jessie Wardarski
Laura Malt Schneiderman