President Trump pledged sweeping political and economic changes during the campaign. We have no idea if Trump can deliver on those promises, but we can explore what it’s going to take for him to try. It’s all in our series The Big Promise.
Driving around rural Erie County, Pennsylvania, what you notice — aside from rolling hills, old farm houses, and the occasional small town — are the movie rental stores. There are a lot of them.
Jamie Buie is the manager of Family Video in Erie City. As she rang up a customer with a towering stack of DVDs, she said her decision to take a job here five years ago came down to internet access.
"For the longest time, we had satellite internet," Buie said. "And with satellite internet, you have no way to stream movies at all. So that was why I originally picked my job with Family Video, so I could get cheap rentals."
Thirty-eight percent of people in rural Erie County don’t have access to fixed broadband, according to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report. Nationwide, almost 40 percent of rural Americans lack access to fixed broadband, compared to just 4 percent of urban Americans.
The movie rental business might benefit from lack of broadband, but it’s hurting many others. Paul Czarnecki is the master taxidermist at Tri-State Taxidermy. As he mounted a brown trout, he explained the look he was going for as, “Lifelike. Realism to the nth degree.”
Czarnecki relies on the internet to search for images, and to connect with customers around the world. He lives above his business and until recently, he and his family got by on just 40 gigabytes of data through their smart phone plan. That meant each Google search came with a cost-benefit analysis.
“You didn’t dare get close to 40 because the overage charges are ridiculous,” said Christie Mahany, Czarnecki’s wife.
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Mahany sells real estate in Erie County. She said it can be tough to sell families on homes without access to broadband.
“Everything is available. You wanna eat Chinese? Thai? Great. It’s definitely got a small town feel with all of these amenities,” said Mahany. “But oh, you wanna live there? Just so you know, you can’t get internet. And can’t get internet is almost like saying you have to take a bucket out to the well and pump your own water.”
Erie County has fought to get big companies, like Verizon and Spectrum, to bring the county up to speed. But companies want to go where it’s profitable.
"Spectrum has a business model that we use to determine the feasibility of any build. The fewer homes per mile, the more difficult it becomes to justify building out," said William Morand, a spokesman for Spectrum, in an email. "Because 100 percent of our capital is private (we receive no government funding), our construction decisions and justifications are based on our business model."
Lisa Vallimont, secretary and elected supervisor for Greene Township, a municipality in Erie County, said: “We, a lot of times, don't meet the 20 homes-per-mile criteria that a lot of these internet companies want. They came out and did a field study and found it wasn’t cost effective. The residents would be required to pay the installation of an estimated $20,000.”
Pennsylvania does have a law, Act 183, that required broadband access for everyone by 2015. The problem was, it only applied to telephone companies, not cable companies like Spectrum. And it was written in 2004 when “high-speed” meant a download speed of 1.544 Mbps, exponentially slower than the FCC’s standard for 2017 of 25 Mbps.
Erie County overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Now residents are hoping the Trump Administration prioritizes internet infrastructure along with bridges and roads.