As Campers Demand Wi-Fi, Some Campgrounds Stuck 'In The Stone Ages'
For Connie Ferris, acting as DJ at Benner’s Meadow Run campground is part of the allure of camping.
The music, along with shared meals and campfires amid a string of RVs parked here for the summer, helps make the place feel like a community.
Ferris spends half the week at the Fayette County campground. In the evenings, she connects her phone to a portable speaker and takes song requests.
“Whatever anybody wants to hear,” she said, though she drew the line recently at rapper Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”
Ferris keeps the music eclectic, streaming it on YouTube using her cell phone data.
“We share 6 gigabytes a month,” she said. “We don’t need them at home, so we have to use them here.”
She could try connecting to Wi-Fi, but there’s a good chance it won’t work.
“We offer Wi-Fi for the campers, but we don’t really even advertise that we have it because it’s so limited,” said Chris Miller, who handles IT for the campground.
While some people camp to get off the grid, others want the ability to connect to the internet for work, to stream a movie or to post a photo from their trip. According to the most recent Kampgrounds of America report, Wi-Fi access is among the top five considerations when selecting a campground.
“For years, whenever anybody called about renting a site at a campground, they asked if they had a swimming pool,” said Beverly Gruber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Campground Owners Association. “That isn’t true anymore. They say, ‘Well, do you have Wi-Fi?’”
She estimates 80 percent of Pennsylvania campgrounds offer some form of Wi-Fi, but that doesn’t necessarily mean all campers can connect.
Marylou Rohlf, owner of Benner’s, has to break the news to prospective campers that the Wi-Fi is hit or miss, even when the place isn’t busy. While this may not deter Ferris, others have a different reaction.
“They will ask when they call, ‘How is your internet? I have to have internet service for my job. I could stay there for a week, but if I don’t have internet I’m going to look somewhere else,’” Rohlf said.
The campground has DSL through a phone line, and a second line just for the office. Regardless, Rohlf said she cannot accept reservations online, and paying bills can take forever.
“We’re in the Stone Ages up here,” she said.
The internet at Benner’s is provided by Verizon. Rohlf said other companies won’t even consider serving the campground.
It can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to lay down a few miles of fiber optic line for just a couple customers.
Steve Samara with the Pennsylvania Telephone Association represents rural providers.
“We are now at the most rural parts of the equation,” said Steve Samara, president of the Pennsylvania Telephone Association, which represents rural providers. “When you get to very, very rural parts it becomes very, very difficult to do. We need some financial help and we need to partner with folks, perhaps, to get some of this stuff done.”
One partner? The state.
Gov. Tom Wolf launched an Office of Broadband Initiatives this spring, tapping Mark Smith to head it up.
“We want to provide 100-megabit service to every household in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Smith said, adding that the goal also applies to businesses. “We want to be able to complete these network build-outs by the end of 2022.”
In rural Pennsylvania, more than half a million people lack access to high-speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Smith wants to entice internet providers to compete for subsidies to serve those residents. The FCC is distributing $2 billion beginning in July to companies looking to extend service in remote areas. It’ll work like an auction, with providers placing “bids” for subsidies, trying to offer the most service with FCC money.
Smith’s office is providing an additional $35 million from the state Department of Transportation to help make those bids more attractive, in exchange for connecting traffic cams, road signs and other transportation facilities.
Samara said that’s a good start, though it pales in comparison to New York’s incentives, which come from an unrelated legal settlement.
“It would be nice to have a half a billion dollar windfall like New York had and direct that toward broadband,” he said. “Outside of having that kind of windfall, it’s tough. It’s tough getting a decent amount of money together to move the needle much.”
Smith said the broadband office is looking for other options. It’s commissioned a comprehensive study of internet speed, providers and access across the state.
Furthermore, staff are working on a program to lease state property to internet providers. Opportunities could involve towers, buildings or “anything the state owns that could be useful for the placement of equipment to support expansion of broadband or mobile access,” Smith said.
Maybe these steps will bring faster internet to Benner’s. Until then, campers will have to be content with limited access.
“Some people do like to disconnect. It is nice to do that,” Rohlf said. “Parents especially will say, ‘Oh you don’t have good internet service. That’s great.’”
After all, they don’t have to spend family vacations telling their kids to put their phones away.