Big Valley is a living postcard of Pennsylvania. Jet-black buggies hug the shoulders of its long, straight roads and knobby-kneed foals prance in fields so green they look electrified. Most signs there urge motorists to repent and rejoice, or to buy fresh strawberries from the Amish children sitting in the shade.
But one Pennsylvania tradition also plagued residents who live in this sweeping landscape: slow, unreliable, and expensive internet service. The government couldn't help. Private suppliers have long said improved speeds were too costly to provide for such a sparsely populated area. So a group of mostly retirees banded together and took a frontier approach to a modern problem. They built their own wireless network, using radio signals instead of expensive cable.
"We just wanted better internet service up our valley. It was pretty simple as that," said Kevin Diven, a founding member of the Rural Broadband Cooperative.
The nonprofit RBC services anyone who can see the 120-foot, former HAM radio tower its founders bought and erected on a patch of land they lease from an Amish man at around 1,900 feet on Stone Mountain, on the border of Mifflin and Huntington Counties, 180 miles from Philadelphia. Users pay an initial set-up fee of about $300, and monthly costs for the service are approximately $40 to $75, depending on the speeds you choose, ranging from 5 to 25 megabits per second.
The RBC has just under 40 paying customers.
"We love living out here," said customer Helena Kotala, of Jackson Corner, Huntingdon County. "It's just that the internet totally sucked."
A Pennsylvania State University research project conducted in 2018 found that internet speeds in the state were dismal. Counties such as Sullivan and Wyoming in the northeast, along with vast areas in and near the Allegheny National Forest in the northwest, had the slowest speeds. Some were as dismal as 0 to 3 megabits per second, far below the FCC's 25 mbps benchmark for "high speed." A 2016 Federal Communications Commission report estimated that 39% of rural Americans, about 23 million people, had no access to 25 mbps. In Pennsylvania, the number of people without access to high-speed internet is 803,645, about 6% of the state's total population.
The Philadelphia suburbs had the highest speeds.
The areas of Mifflin and Huntingdon Counties that the RBC serves often had speeds less than 2 mbps, Diven said. He was served by Verizon and said he was frequently in touch with the company about improving speeds. Verizon representatives often attended local meetings about the issue. Comcast, he said, wanted $80,000 to lay high-speed internet for approximately eight miles.
"I tried the FCC and the PUC (Pennsylvania's Public Utility Commission) and got nowhere," said Diven, who had hoped they would intervene with the private providers.