WASHINGTON — Along the western Pennsylvania border, farmers struggle with such slow internet speeds that, in frustration, they still old-school print and mail their invoices.

Some have no choice due to the lack of connectivity to internet service and email.

It is called the “digital divide” of broadband internet between rural and urban America, a gap technology experts say restricts economic development and jobs in sparsely populated regions.

The Federal Communications Commission reports nearly 40 percent of the nation’s rural areas are without adequate broadband service. It has been trying to address the issue by offering $1.8 billion in annual subsidies to telecom companies to step up and provide service.

In Pennsylvania, hopes for improving service diminished when Verizon turned down federal subsidies of $138 million over six years to improve service to 64,620 rural homes in businesses.

Big internet providers in others states have also rejected the FCC money, mainly because of the overall cost to deploy broadband service in remote locations.

Jill Foys, executive director of the Northwest Commission, a nonprofit striving to replace lost coal industry jobs in eight western Pennsylvania counties, said rural fortunes are tied to adequate internet service.

She equates the fundamental need for rural broadband service to the essence of roads and phone service in the last century. “We’re looking at technological infrastructure in the same way,” she said.

The FCC subsidy program is known as the “Connect America Fund,” and telecom companies that turn down offers to tap it open up opportunities for rivals to benefit in other rural regions through an auction process.

In some instances, states have put aside their own money to match the FCC offer and help fund broadband service when the telecom provider can’t see its way to accept the federal money.

New York officials successfully petitioned the FCC last year to keep $170 million Verizon turned down to improve service in upstate rural areas because the state put up $500 million to bolster the federal funds.

Pennsylvania has petitioned the FCC to hold to its offer of $23 million per year in subsidies over six years by giving it credit for making economic development grants available to also fund rural broadband service.

Contact CNHI Washington reporter Kery Murakami at kmurakami@cnhi.com.

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