WAYNESBURG — Poor Internet connection and low broadband availability has been a hot topic in Greene County as of late, as many residents who are experiencing these issues have expressed their frustrations that better, faster Internet connection and speed is vital to their everyday lives in the 21st century.
One resident, Zack Whipkey of Waynesburg, knows first-hand how frustrating these issues can be. And he wants something done about it.
After more than six years of consistently poor Internet connection in Greene County that he says can be slower than dial-up, Whipkey wants answers from Windstream Communications, the only service provider in many of the most rural parts of the county.
Whipkey, a 25-year-old software developer, recently wrote an open letter to Windstream expressing dissatisfaction on behalf of 122 residents of Holbrook, Wind Ridge and Nineveh who are not getting the Internet service they have been paying for. In 2013, Whipkey also compiled a report on his blog noting that 55 percent of his mother Diane Richardson’s service is at least seven times slower than the average latency. (Latency refers to the time it takes for a packet of information to reach its destination and return back to a computer.)
“I don’t think Windstream has upgraded in our area in a very long time,” Whipkey said. “It’s safe to say people have kind of given up on it.”
According to Whipkey, good latency for a computer is less than 100 milliseconds. Latency for Arkansas-based Windstream is most frequently around 1,000-2,000 milliseconds, Whipkey said.
Richardson, who lives in Holbrook, said her nephew has to take online tests for college at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. because his tests will time out at any other time of the day.
“There are several home-schooled kids I know that rely on the Internet, and a lot of times the connection’s just awful,” Richardson said. “We pay for something every week that most of the time we can’t use, because people work during the day and when they get home around 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., it’s peak Internet access and you can’t use the connection. You’re paying for something you can’t really use.”
Whipkey added that he had to move in with his father, Dave Whipkey, in Waynesburg (which has a different service provider) since he couldn’t work on software developing with the poor Windstream connection at his mother’s home in Holbrook.
“I don’t think somebody in West Greene is going to be able to stream Netflix,” Whipkey said. “But you need Internet that’s better than dial-up. Not being able to do homework and basic text-based tasks where you live has to stop.”
Greene County Internet Technology director Scott Kelley said he struggles with Windstream service at his Cumberland Township home as well.
“Windstream is terrible,” Kelley said. “You get days in a row with extreme lag times. The entire county’s mad.”
So Kelley called Windstream customer service a month ago. He said a representative told him there wasn’t enough broadband capacity in his area and that he should switch service providers.
But that isn’t an option for Kelley, who only has one choice, much like some residents in Greene and Fayette counties.
“We don’t have enough Internet access in Fayette County,” said Daniel Hoff, Fayette County Career & Technical Institute technology coordinator. “I have a lot of clients who live in the mountain area, and they complain about their connection all the time.”
Kelley has been able to achieve a decent home connection by mobile hotspotting through his mobile phone provider, but even that is not an option for everyone depending on their mobile provider or location.
A 2013 Federal Communications Commission study found that Windstream was the worst-performing DSL provider in the country, with just 81 percent of customers getting marketed broadband speeds. In 2014, the FCC found that Windstream’s 1.5 megabits per second service speed tier delivered just 78 percent of advertised speed, a low across all internet service providers.
According to DSLReports.com, slow Windstream Internet speed has also been protested by customers in Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia and South Carolina.
“They’ve oversubscribed their lines,” Kelley said.
“Nobody’s putting any money in networks because providers know there’s zero competition,” Hoff said.
Local and national Windstream representatives could not be reached for comment.
Kelley and several of his neighbors recently petitioned Atlantic Broadband to extend service to their homes. Whipkey is contemplating a formal complaint to the FCC about Windstream.
“With all the Marcellus shale stuff around here, a lot of people expect better service to be here,” Kelley said. “(Unreliable access) holds down development outside of the areas where you have an alternative. Business owners are hurt by it.”
The FCC announced earlier this month that Windstream accepted $13 million in ongoing annual broadband support from the Connect America Fund, including $2.2 million in carrier support for Greene County, the highest total among 38 counties in Pennsylvania and Ohio receiving support through the fund.
But Whipkey said Windstream did not improve service after receiving prior funding through the FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in recent years. He’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the new funding.
Whipkey is also alarmed that connection issues are promoting computer illiteracy among children and young adults.
“Greene County is very sparsely populated, so when I was growing up, I often didn’t have anybody to play with,” Whipkey said. “I have sympathy for people now like my 13-year-old cousin, who is so frustrated with the Internet because he can’t do anything he wants to do.”
Hoff suggests that towns install Wi-Fi in parks and other public areas, and he said he would be willing to host town hall meetings with other local information technology experts.
“The next generation will need computer skills to compete in this country,” Hoff said. “If you can’t do it to the fullest extent possible, you fall behind. It’s going to keep us back as a community.”
In the meantime, Whipkey and Hoff are both concerned that a lack of reliable access because of cost and broadband connection issues is creating a dangerous local cycle of undereducation, underemployment and discontent.
“There’s only one way to grow this county, and that’s to make it modern,” Hoff said. “This county will die if people don’t modernize.”