As person after person stepped through the door of Peace, Love and Zen – a wellness center in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood last week, they joined the awkward circle people make when they expect to be members of an audience. They were lit by the gentle glow of the wellness center’s Himalayan salt lamps, set into cubbies near the ceiling.
Michael Bloom, of trade group Internet Association, thanked everyone for coming out for the internet community crawl, and asked for attendees to introduce themselves and the companies they represented. They went around the circle: Lyft, Uber, Spotify, Airbnb.
“I have all of your apps on my phone,” joked Congressman Mike Doyle (D-PA), and then turned to Peace, Love and Zen’s owner to ask how the internet helps her business.
“Without the internet it would be much more challenging,” said Susan Coe. “All of our scheduling here is done, of course, on the internet. Many people book themselves online. All the reviews are very important, as well, with Google and Trip Advisor and Yelp and all of them.”
The crawl was meant to highlight something that’s often taken for granted: internet access makes everything from checking email to mobile banking possible. And since you’re reading this on the internet in 2018, its importance may seem obvious. But that’s not the case for a lot of people, said Doyle.
“Many people are not as tech-savvy as you might think they are,” he said. “We want to get information out to people and businesses and all walks of life how this can be used as a tool for positive things, to expand commerce, to create jobs, to connect people.”
The Federal Communications Commission estimates 800,000 Pennsylvanians lack a reliable connection to the world wide web. But that number is likely much higher, said Mark Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Broadband Initiative.
“The FCC’s numbers are really self-reported by the industry ... and they’re reported very broadly,” he said. If one person in a census block has service a provider can say the entire census block is covered.
Internet isn’t about being able to write emails to far-flung family members anymore, though that would be nice, Smith said.
“This is a serious infrastructure issue that needs to be addressed in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Gov. Tom Wolf established Smith’s office this year with the goal of providing broadband internet with a download speed of 100 megabits per second to every Pennsylvanian. The state offered $35 million to internet service providers to throw their hats into the FCC’s Connect America Fund Phase II auction. The ideas is to incentivize putting internet infrastructure in places that are more rural, and traditionally more expensive to serve.
“The demand for broadband access is not going to go down. It’s only going to go up,” said Smith. “Businesses, it’s an absolute necessity. Agriculture, it’s a necessity. In education, it’s a necessity. Ensuring our public responders can communicate effectively no matter where they are, it’s a necessity.”
Meagan McCann of Airbnb said a free and open internet is crucial to economic empowerment.
“The internet economy is the future. Maintaining low barriers to entry, encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship, that’s the future of work and the future of income,” she said, as she walked to the internet crawl’s third stop at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater. “When we talk about businesses and jobs and middle class growth, we need to be talking about the internet.”
Congressman Doyle said the issue has taken on even more importance in light of the FCC’s reversal of net neutrality rules. He’s working to introduce a bill to restore those rules, but said House Speaker Paul Ryan would prefer the legislation not make it to the floor.
“We’ve still got some work to do,” he said.