A reliable internet connection is critical for many modern businesses. But broadband internet isn’t always easily available in some rural areas of Pennsylvania.
Along with the intricacies of growing produce, farmer Bill Banta must deal with sometimes unreliable internet speeds.
“It’s hard to do business,” said Banta, co-owner of Rowlands Pennsylvania Produce in Exeter Twp. “I can’t send emails, I can’t receive emails. I can’t get online. When you have a business, it’s really critical when you’re sitting there and you’re trying to send an email and there’s someone waiting on the other end for an invoice or something. I’m trying to send an invoice, and I can’t send it.”
He occasionally performs speed tests to see how his internet is performing.
“It’s just dismal. It’s really, really low numbers. Like three (megabits per second, or Mbps),” he said. “And that’s when it’s working. A lot of times, it’s not working at all. You can’t do anything.”
Banta has heard the talking points from various administrations in the federal government about improving broadband access, but has yet to see any actual improvement. He has considered satellite internet, but mixed reviews and the fact that he mostly just needs the internet to send emails make him wary.
The farm includes a hydroponic facility where Amanda and Bill Banta grow lettuce, kale, arugula and other produce year-round. But a lack of high-speed internet means the farm is losing out on all that the facility is capable of, Bill Banta said.
With broadband internet, he said, it would be easy to monitor the growing systems that run the hydroponic facility through his cellphone. The systems that run the hydroponics have automatic alarms that can tell him when something is going wrong. He can check the environment anytime — if he has service. That’s another connectivity issue, and one that other farmers mentioned as a problem: Cell service in rural areas is not reliable.
“I’ve already been in situations where it was really bad because I didn’t know. There was no way for me to know. When you get into these growing systems that are fully automated and all hydroponic, there is very little room for error,” he said.
For Williams Companies — the natural gas production company with wells, pipelines and compressor stations tapping Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation — communications infrastructure is essential for doing business.
Sometimes, the company builds its own fiber optic cables for facilities that need it and are far away from existing infrastructure, said spokesman Chris Stockton.
“Certainly, the more existing infrastructure available to you, maybe the less you have to install yourself. It’s nice to have, but unlike other businesses, we are used to operating in remote areas where that infrastructure does not currently exist,” he said.
Before Paul Brace had broadband internet at Brace’s Orchard, using the internet meant other parts of his business sometimes had to wait.
“Somebody would be calling in, and say ‘I need a credit card machine.’ Well I can’t use the credit card machine because I’m on the phone. We couldn’t do both. If you were on the phone, you couldn’t use the swiper because it was the phone line,” he said.
He previously used another internet service provider, and about 15 or 20 years ago, he used satellite. Under his old provider, he noticed a slowdown in speed when people got home from school and work.
He struck a deal with Comcast in which the company connected his business to the internet for free in exchange for a two-year contract. He used to get speeds of around one to five megabits per second. Now his internet runs at about 50 Mbps.
“We get some orders from the stores and stuff, but they’re all coming in through email. But everything works more efficiently,” he said. “It’s 20 times faster. Sometimes it used to take 30 seconds for a page to load. Now you push the button and it’s there.”
A bigger problem with rural connectivity, he said, is cellphone service. Anyone who wants high-speed internet service can use satellite, but that’s not a viable option with mobile phone service. When he’s driving from his farm to Scranton, for example, he’ll go through a long stretch with no service. If he forgets something or wants to reach one of the 40-plus grocery stores he sells to, he must wait. That’s where he’d like to see more investment.
“I need one bar for text, two for cellphone,” he said. “Believe me, I’d be walking in the orchard and I have one bar - I have two, I can’t move. Because I take one more step - lost the call.”