Editorial: Internet survey demands participation

For many people, internet signal isn’t an issue. It’s just a fact of life.

It might be a strong and steady presence as close at hand as a cellphone. It might be from a modem that distributes high-powered connection to all the devices in the house that demand it: a couple of computers, a few televisions, the kids’ game system, the doorbell camera, even things like a bathroom scale or a kitchen appliance.

But, for other people, the access just isn’t there.

It might not be a question of having enough money in the budget to cover the costs — although high-speed internet isn’t cheap. For too many in Pennsylvania, including Westmoreland County, the kind of broadband internet access that things like distance learning or streaming demand just isn’t an option in certain areas.

That is why the federal and state governments have prioritized broadband internet access as a part of infrastructure investment. Westmoreland County followed suit.

Commissioners announced plans this summer to use some American Rescue Plan funds for a survey of broadband access in the county. That survey — contracted to Michael Baker International at a cost of $659,000 — is underway.

Preliminary numbers show 3,600 residents with no access at all and thousands with insufficient connections to meet standards.

The important part is where the survey — and surveyors — connect with the residents.

“Some people think we’re selling internet,” said Kevin Baker, one half of a two-person survey team. “A quarter of the people we see are ecstatic and say, ‘We’re waiting for you.’ ”

Internet is not just an option in people’s lives anymore. It’s a utility like electricity or gas. Imagine if your lights only worked half the time, or if your refrigerator could only work at about a tenth of its capacity. What if your furnace could barely fire up on a cold day, even though you were paying for sauna-like temperatures.

That is what insufficient internet can be like. Businesses need it for meetings, diagnostic equipment, processing payments and more. Kids need it for school — even when there isn’t a pandemic. If your signal isn’t strong enough, you might not be able to file a job application, fill out an unemployment claim or take care of health insurance claims.

The assessment needs participation. The more people who provide information, the more complete the data will be and the better the ultimate plans for improvement.

To participate, county residents should visit westmorelandbroadband.org or talk to the surveyors when they visit. The commissioners started this process, but it will take more than that to finish it.

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