NORTHERN CAMBRIA, Pa. – When the Northern Cambria Senior Center opens each day, director Donna Shingle said it’s common to see retirees bringing laptops with them for online appointments or to chat online with grandchildren.
For many, internet speeds aren’t reliable enough to log on at home – or the monthly bill is way too steep, Shingle and Cambria County Area Agency on Aging Director Veil Griffith said.
“Access to internet in rural communities is extremely important – especially for seniors,” Griffith said, noting many often live home alone or are somewhat homebound – and miles removed from children and grandchildren.
Gov. Josh Shapiro noted Thursday they aren’t being forgotten as Pennsylvania moves plans forward to roll out a nearly $1.2 billion broadband expansion plan.
As part of a statewide effort aimed at linking rural areas with faster, more reliable – and affordable – broadband, the program won’t just target areas such as pastoral northern Cambria County, but also senior citizens and low-income families statewide, he said.
Broadband “isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Shapiro told a roomful of retirees inside the Tracy Drive center, “and access is particularly important for our seniors.”
As it is, more than 5,900 homes, social clubs or businesses lack adequate high speed connections in Cambria County alone – and compared to other age groups, retirement age Pennsylvanians are 14% more likely to not have any access, he said.
"Broadband “isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity and access is particularly important for our seniors.”
Without a doubt, cost plays a big factor for many on fixed incomes, he said.
As designed, Pennsylvania’s Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment and Digital Equity plan will enable low-to-moderate income residents – $36,620 or less for a two-member household – Medicaid and SNAP recipients and others to receive $30 monthly subsidies toward monthly internet bills, according to Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority Executive Director Brandon Carson.
“If your family qualifies for the free or reduced lunch program, they’ll qualify for this,” said Carson, noting the subsidy won’t be restricted solely for older Pennsylvanians.
Northern Cambria resident Velma Hineman praised the goal Tuesday, saying she considers herself lucky to have reliable internet in her community.
She said many of her friends aren’t as lucky.
Whether it’s to upload photos or share emails, Hineman said she’s online often but is frustrated by the monthly bill she pays.
“Most people my age are on a fixed incomes,” she said.
The Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority is working to complete a five-year action plan that will be submitted to federal leaders by next year to outline how the state will expand access to broadband in areas without access or inadequate internet speeds.
Part of the task is developing a game plan to get those services to sometimes ultra rural areas while still meeting 100 megabyte download and 20 megabyte upload thresholds set by the federal government as adequate broadband.
Carson said Thursday that will involve developing a network of fiber optic cable – a gold standard for high speed – and expanding cable modem and licensed fixed wireless networks elsewhere to extend connections to homes.
If all goes well, the state will have approval next year to begin deploying that technology through local partnerships and internet service providers over the ensuing four to five years, Shapiro said.
Whether it involves the ability for someone to work remotely from their rural residence, expand a business or allow a student to submit assignments from home, location shouldn’t decide whether or not communities can compete with peers across the country, he added.
“This is going to be a game-changer,” Shapiro said.