'Get it done right': Future of broadband access in York County is at critical moment

Tina Locurto
York Dispatch

Shelly Kiser has struggled with reliable internet access for three years.

The Airville resident has relied on a Verizon hotspot for internet access — and when it does decide to work, only one person in her house can use it at a time.

This was especially frustrating during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Kiser's grandchildren couldn't reliably submit homework when schools went virtual.

"I always thought no child was left behind," Kiser said. "Well, I guess that's a lie, too."

Henkels & McCoy employee Kolton Whitsel wraps fiber optic cable around a pulling wheel during an installation along the York County Heritage Rail Trail in Codorus Township Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. The York County Board of Commissioners allocated $5 million from its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to pay for the the new broadband internet infrastructure. Bill Kalina photo

And it's not just York County families struggling with internet and cellular service; business owners and local emergency officials deal with the same issues on a daily basis.

Inside the doors of the Northern York County Regional Police building, internet access is available only with boosters to ensure coverage for the entire building. But just outside the walls — as close as the parking lot — service remains nonexistent for residents and emergency officials alike.

It's a grim reality many York County residents face: minimal internet and cellular access.

Closing the "digital divide" has been a hot topic among state lawmakers for years; but right now is the most crucial time to ensure access for those who need it, according to state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township.

Pennsylvania State Senator Kristin Phillips-Hill speaks during the York County Republicans watch party at Wisehaven Event Center in Windsor Township, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

"We've got to have that critical infrastructure," Phillips-Hill told The York Dispatch. "It's important for workforce development. It's important for education. It's essential for providing emergency services."

For years, Phillips-Hill has led the charge to boost internet and cellular access in York County. She helped write the legislation to create the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Authority — a committee later tasked with determining how billions of federal dollars would be used locally.

Through the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill, $100 million is available to Pennsylvania to support broadband expansion.

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So, how will this money be used to serve York County communities?

That's entirely up to residents.

Just last month, the Federal Communications Commission released a National Broadband Map, allowing users to search their home address for information on internet service levels, according to Brandon Carson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Broadband Development Board.

"(The FCC) inaccurately reported some areas being served with high-speed internet, when they are in fact not," Carson said in a news conference Monday morning. "This is important because the map will be used to determine how the $42 billion available through the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill will be allocated."

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Individuals can search their home address by visiting https://broadbandmap.fcc.gov/home.

In Phillips-Hill's district for example, which covers much of southern York County, many areas have 0% coverage, she said.

On first glance, seeing tons of tiny green dots might be a good sign, indicating that an area is available for coverage. Pulling back from the map and zooming out, however, will reveal colored honeycombs with important data.

A screenshot showing Winterstown's fixed broadband service on the Federal Communications Commission National Broadband Map.

"If you look at Winterstown, you could see there's a lot of white gaps that have 0% coverage," Phillips-Hill said. "That's why it's important that people engage, and if you move up and down and all around, you can see there's a lot of honeycombs that are white."

Every York County resident should search their address to confirm the findings of the FCC map, officials said.

Individuals who wish to challenge the map can find a button to the right of their address that says "location challenge." Clicking that will bring up a form that can be filled out with details regarding how the FCC map can be improved.

"It's not lost on me that we are asking people who don't have access to internet to visit a website to see if they have internet," Phillips-Hill said in Monday's news conference. "So if you can't access the internet, call your legislator. You have to speak up — this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get this done and to get it done right."