High-speed questions: is it a utility or a privilege?  

If there is a silver lining to this educational crisis, it’s that forced acknowledgement that the internet is no longer a luxury — particularly for American students. 

“It’s like that time-travel book [by H.G. Wells],” says Adam Longwill of Meta Mesh Wireless Communities, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that uses novel means to fill internet service gaps here. “There’s the above-ground people and the underground people. And they are the same, like, they evolved from the same humans. But they’re just totally and completely incompatible with each other.” 

The metaphor continued: “We are creating a society of the connected and the disconnected that are going to be so far apart if we continue to let this happen, I don’t know how we’ll ever get back together.” 

Sto-Rox curriculum director, Michael Amick, poses for a portrait inside of a classroom at the Sto-Rox Primary Center on Dec. 18, 2020. Sto-Rox’s curriculum director, Michael Amick, poses for a portrait inside of a classroom at the Sto-Rox Primary Center on Dec. 18, 2020. Photo by Nate Smallwood.

Gov. Tom Wolf, in an attempt to address this digital divide, signed into law in November the Unserved High-Speed Broadband Funding Program Act

State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., a Cambria County Republican and primary sponsor of the bill, said the legislation was first conceived in 2017 and regained its momentum this summer after a lengthy stay in committee. 

The act created a $5 million grant program to incentivize private-sector companies to add high-speed internet in places where sparse populations and lower rates of return have always been a disincentive. 

For the purposes of the grant program, the law also updates the definition of which areas of the commonwealth are being served by high-speed internet. The law uses the FCC’s minimums, rather than the ones set by Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Code, which relies on decades-old metrics and which is at least part of the reason why families from the Belle Vernon School District in Westmoreland County to the Sto-Rox School District in Allegheny County struggle to stay connected.  

The FCC’s higher watermark sets basic service at 3 to 8 megabits per second (mbps) for both downloads and uploads and high-speed service at more than 25 mbps. To put that in context, an average-sized cellphone photo would take about 8 seconds to download at 3 mbps and exponentially less time from there. Those speeds are less adequate when considering the more demanding activities required for online learning, especially when a household has more than one device running at a time. By the FCC’s own standard, basic service is just barely good enough for the rigors of video conferences and calls.

But while the new grant program corrects for the commonwealth’s low standard, advocates are skeptical it will make a difference. Most underserved areas of the state won’t be eligible for the support promised because they will be officially labeled as “served” when in fact they are not, said Sascha Meinrath, a Penn State professor in telecommunications who led a recent study testing broadband speeds access

The study, conducted in 2018 and released in 2019 by the bipartisan Center for Rural Pennsylvania, found “a systematic and growing overstatement of broadband service availability in rural communities” by internet service providers, noting discrepancies between the self-reported internet provider data collected by the FCC and tests run by independent researchers. 

Kyle Kopko, the center’s director, estimates 253,000 rural households in Pennsylvania — 15 percent of the state’s rural total — still have no internet at all. 

Meinrath said the bill is weak in other ways. It doesn’t allow municipal entities — like Washington Township in Fayette County — to take advantage of the grant program on their own.  

There’s also nothing restricting data caps, throttling or other artificial limitations on speed and bandwidth imposed by providers. (Meinrath estimates only five to 10 percent of Pennsylvanian households can currently support three Zoom calls at the same time — not an uncommon occurrence these days with students and parents all working from home.) 

Langerholc said he’s open to amending the bill as needed to “meet needs maybe we didn’t foresee at the time.” 

“No law is perfect,” he added, “and if we’re going to legislate based on naysayers, that’s not gonna work … And this comes at a time when it is sorely needed.”

Robert Grove, a spokesperson for Comcast/Xfinity, said the pandemic has highlighted a growing need for the service. 

Between March and May, the company reported a 32 percent increase in upstream traffic — meaning the amount of data being sent from computers or networks in the form of outgoing emails, file uploads, and more. Comcast also reported an 11 percent increase in downstream traffic — meaning data received by a computer or network through incoming emails, file downloads, webpage visits, and more.

Grove declined comment on the criticism of the legislation. 

Schools race to close gaps themselves

Meanwhile, school districts across the region head into the second half of the school year with their own solutions. 

In Butler County, the Karns City Area School District added external access points to the exterior of school buildings so that families can access the internet from the parking lot. They also added one to the press box of the high school football stadium so that, on nice days, students can sit on the bleachers and use the internet, said Foster Crawford, the school’s director of technology. 

An external access point is pictured on a Karns City Area School District building, allowing district families to access the internet from the school’s parking lot. Photo by Nate Smallwood.

“We live in a very poorly-run internet area,” Crawford said. “We are lucky if half of our students are able to get broadband access. Most are getting DSL. It’s pretty rough.” 

In Washington County, McGuffey School District officials equipped school vans and other vehicles with mobile hotspots, parking them in church and public parking lots closer to where students live. “Our parents/students can sign up for access and then we will arrange to drive the units out to the requested areas of the district at specific times,” said Michael S. Wilson, the school’s director of technology and transportation, in an email. 

McGuffey, the Avella Area School District and, in neighboring Fayette County, the Brownsville Area School District, are all also experimenting with broadcasting classes through Pennsylvania PBS, said Brownsville assistant superintendent Bethany Hutson. 

“From our local surveys of families this past summer, 39 percent of families reported that they did not have internet access to support remote learning,” Hutson said. 

School officials around the region are also coordinating with church halls and fire halls to open their doors — and internet connections — for students. Rich Lenk, the fire chief for the Grindstone Volunteer Fire Department in Fayette County, said there are sometimes as many as 15 or 20 students at a time relying on the department’s internet, either from the parking lot or from inside the fire hall. 

And two districts, the New Kensington-Arnold School District in Westmoreland County and the Cornell School District in Allegheny County, are doing what once seemed unthinkable: They are building their own internet network.

The pilot project — spearheaded by Meta Mesh Wireless Communities and partners at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh — takes internet bandwidth donated by the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research, a nonprofit internet service provider, and pools it into a shareable and public stream, bringing free internet to students and families that wouldn’t otherwise have it. The project is being jointly paid for by CMU and the Hopper-Dean Foundation. 

When all is said and done, the free signal will stretch among a trio of radios — one atop the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland, one atop a water tower in Coraopolis, and one on Neville Island in the headwaters of the Ohio River — reaching underserved communities like Coraopolis, Homewood, and New Kensington.

“It was really important to us that we not make band-aid solutions going into this,” said Ashley Patton, a computer science specialist at CMU who was approached by Cornell’s director of technology and instructional innovation, Kris Hupp, last year. 

Director of Technology and Instructional Innovation, Kristopher Hupp, poses for a portrait inside of the Cornell School building on Dec. 21, 2020. Photo by Nate Smallwood.

With help from Patton and her colleague, Maggie Hannan, a learning scientist and engagement specialist at CMU, Hupp was introduced to Longwill, Meta Mesh’s executive director, and a plan was quickly formed. 

Registration is currently open for residents of Coraopolis, Homewood, and New Kensington to join the network. Families with students will be prioritized, but all who need it are welcome to apply. 

The service itself is expected to be up and running by the end of the 2020-2021 school year, with the goal of expanding to more western Pa. communities beyond the first year. 

“We wanted to provide something that was durable and a better option than the stop-gap solutions,” Patton said. 

To tell the full story of COVID-19’s effect on our community health, safety and security, the members of the Pittsburgh Media Partnership are working together. And we need your help, too. Help contribute to the story: What has school been like for you or your family over the past year? 

TyLisa C. Johnson of PublicSource, Jordan Woman of the Brown and White at Lehigh University, and Zoey Angelucci and Logan Garvey, both of Point Park University, contributed reporting to this project.