Abstract

North Central Pennsylvania suffers from sparse cellular network coverage due to the longstanding challenges of low populations and rugged topography that are common in other remote areas. However, in recent years the natural gas (“fracking”) industry has entered the region and enjoys much better network coverage than citizens. Based on field research by the author, this article analyzes the geographical, economic, and political causes of these patterns. The article considers the impact on local citizens and recommends solutions based on existing Pennsylvania law.

This study was originally inspired by several acquaintances of the author who are residents of North Central Pennsylvania. These correspondents informed the author that their region has many large gaps in consumer cellular telephone coverage, with even fairly sizable towns being neglected; this is a long-known fact based on the region's sparse population. But the local people are also aware that cellular connectivity can be found in remote backwoods areas at high elevations, often less than one mile outside of an unserved town.1 Meanwhile, there is a certain amount of discontent in the region as the rapidly growing natural gas development industry (known colloquially as “fracking”) enjoys cellular network connectivity at its well sites and compressor stations, which also can be tantalizingly close to a town that has no coverage at all.

This article combines field research on cellular network availability in North Central Pennsylvania with a policy-based analysis of that state's regulatory goals in providing reliable advanced telecommunications services to all citizens. This article finds that Pennsylvania's telecommunications policy goals have not yet been realized in the North Central region, but new interpretations of existing statutes and regulations may alleviate the disconnect, while the fracking industry has inadvertently created opportunities for cellular network equipment to be constructed in currently unserved areas.

Field research by the author revealed that the poorly distributed cellular network coverage of North Central Pennsylvania, in which communities have long been neglected while a relatively new industry is able to connect to its own benefit, is caused by the topography of the region and is also a manifestation of long-standing challenges arising from a thinly distributed population and shortage of traditional transportation infrastructure. Specifically, inhabited towns are often in steep river valleys in which the rugged landscape blocks line-of-sight propagation of cellular signals, while that same landscape has thwarted transportation to areas that could be utilized for strategically placed antennas. On the other hand, nearby uninhabited areas at higher elevations have coverage that until recently has benefited nobody, thanks to line-of-sight coverage from network towers at similar elevations a considerable distance away. The region also faces a less-specific challenge shared by other sparsely populated places: the consumer cellular industry's long-standing lack of interest in building more infrastructure in areas deemed to be unprofitable. This challenge is further exacerbated by Pennsylvania's existing land use and zoning regulations, which encourage natural resources development in rural areas but do not do the same for telecommunications.

This study finds that the natural gas industry has built infrastructure in previously inaccessible areas that had been beyond the reach or interest of telecommunications firms, and there is now much less reason for those firms to conclude that such areas are inaccessible. The article starts with an analysis of the challenging geography of North Central Pennsylvania and how this has shaped cellular network coverage in the region. This is followed by an analysis of land usage in the region by the natural gas industry, and that industry's use of extant high-elevation connectivity for its own communications, often tantalizingly close to unserved communities at lower elevations. The article concludes with recommendations for more efficient land usage by both the telecommunications and natural gas industries in ways that can enable the expansion of consumer cellular networks into presently unserved areas, with suggestions for interpreting existing Pennsylvania land use and telecommunications regulations to justify shared use of cleared lands and access roads that have already been approved for fracking, and which could also be a benefit for telecommunications and the public interest.

The Geography of North Central Pennsylvania

While the term “North Central Pennsylvania” has no precise definition, the eleven counties selected for this study are traditionally considered part of a distinct region that is known for thick forest cover and rugged topography (see Figure 1). It has no interstate highways except for a brief stretch of I-80 at the southern edge of Clinton County.2 In particular, North Central Pennsylvania is known for its sparse population, with a population density that is significantly lower than the average for the otherwise highly urbanized and industrialized northeastern United States.3 North Central Pennsylvania was the last region of the state to be settled, with pioneers arriving as late as the 1820s.4 The region's population peaked in about 1900,5 and after its leading industries in timber and forestry became mechanized, its population declined consistently throughout the twentieth century.6

FIGURE 1

North Central Pennsylvania

FIGURE 1

North Central Pennsylvania

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See the table in Figure 2, which illustrates the low population density in North Central Pennsylvania. All the selected counties except Lycoming have population densities less than one-fifth that of the Pennsylvania statewide average of 284 people per mi2. Lycoming County's population density is boosted by the Williamsport metropolitan area; that city is the only one in the region with significant suburban developments outside of city limits. However, much of the rest of that county is as sparsely populated as North Central Pennsylvania at large. Williamsport and St. Marys (Elk County) are the only communities in the region with more than 10,000 people.7

FIGURE 2

County Data for North Central Pennsylvania

Data By County
CountyPopulation (2010 census)Area (mi.2)Pop. Density (per mi.2)Largest City/Borough
Bradford 62,622 1,161 53 Sayre (pop. 5,587) 
Cameron 5,085  398 12 Emporium (pop. 2,073) 
Clinton 39,328  897 44 Lock Haven (pop. 9,772) 
Elk 31,946  832 37 St. Marys (pop. 13,070) 
Forest 7,716  430 17 Marienville (pop. 3,137) 
Lycoming 116,111 1,244 95 Williamsport (pop. 29,381) 
McKean 43,450  984 43 Bradford (pop. 8,770) 
Potter 17,457 1,082 16 Coudersport (pop. 2,546) 
Sullivan 6,328  452 14 Dushore (pop. 608) 
Tioga 41,981 1,137 37 Mansfield (pop. 3,635) 
Warren 41,815  899 45 Warren (pop. 9,710) 
TOTALS 413,749 9,516 43  
Data By County
CountyPopulation (2010 census)Area (mi.2)Pop. Density (per mi.2)Largest City/Borough
Bradford 62,622 1,161 53 Sayre (pop. 5,587) 
Cameron 5,085  398 12 Emporium (pop. 2,073) 
Clinton 39,328  897 44 Lock Haven (pop. 9,772) 
Elk 31,946  832 37 St. Marys (pop. 13,070) 
Forest 7,716  430 17 Marienville (pop. 3,137) 
Lycoming 116,111 1,244 95 Williamsport (pop. 29,381) 
McKean 43,450  984 43 Bradford (pop. 8,770) 
Potter 17,457 1,082 16 Coudersport (pop. 2,546) 
Sullivan 6,328  452 14 Dushore (pop. 608) 
Tioga 41,981 1,137 37 Mansfield (pop. 3,635) 
Warren 41,815  899 45 Warren (pop. 9,710) 
TOTALS 413,749 9,516 43  
FIGURE 2

County Data for North Central Pennsylvania

Data By County
CountyPopulation (2010 census)Area (mi.2)Pop. Density (per mi.2)Largest City/Borough
Bradford 62,622 1,161 53 Sayre (pop. 5,587) 
Cameron 5,085  398 12 Emporium (pop. 2,073) 
Clinton 39,328  897 44 Lock Haven (pop. 9,772) 
Elk 31,946  832 37 St. Marys (pop. 13,070) 
Forest 7,716  430 17 Marienville (pop. 3,137) 
Lycoming 116,111 1,244 95 Williamsport (pop. 29,381) 
McKean 43,450  984 43 Bradford (pop. 8,770) 
Potter 17,457 1,082 16 Coudersport (pop. 2,546) 
Sullivan 6,328  452 14 Dushore (pop. 608) 
Tioga 41,981 1,137 37 Mansfield (pop. 3,635) 
Warren 41,815  899 45 Warren (pop. 9,710) 
TOTALS 413,749 9,516 43  
Data By County
CountyPopulation (2010 census)Area (mi.2)Pop. Density (per mi.2)Largest City/Borough
Bradford 62,622 1,161 53 Sayre (pop. 5,587) 
Cameron 5,085  398 12 Emporium (pop. 2,073) 
Clinton 39,328  897 44 Lock Haven (pop. 9,772) 
Elk 31,946  832 37 St. Marys (pop. 13,070) 
Forest 7,716  430 17 Marienville (pop. 3,137) 
Lycoming 116,111 1,244 95 Williamsport (pop. 29,381) 
McKean 43,450  984 43 Bradford (pop. 8,770) 
Potter 17,457 1,082 16 Coudersport (pop. 2,546) 
Sullivan 6,328  452 14 Dushore (pop. 608) 
Tioga 41,981 1,137 37 Mansfield (pop. 3,635) 
Warren 41,815  899 45 Warren (pop. 9,710) 
TOTALS 413,749 9,516 43  
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Geographically, most of North Central Pennsylvania consists of a high plateau that has been carved by rivers over tens of millions of years into a jumbled pattern of narrow valleys and steep forested canyon walls. This type of landscape resists intensive agricultural operations, large towns, and the construction of high-capacity roads and railroads. Thus, the region remains relatively isolated and remote, with a small population spread very sparsely across scattered small towns and rural homes.8

Cellular Coverage in North Central Pennsylvania

The present project is focused on wireless/cellular communications, which can be used to a certain extent to deliver broadband networks,9 though that coverage is deficient in North Central Pennsylvania as will be described in this section. Regardless of its delivery method, the leaders of Pennsylvania, not unlike most of the world's leaders, have determined that broadband is necessary if not crucial for social and economic development.10 As with previous telecommunications technologies, North Central Pennsylvania lags behind in modern broadband services. Fixed broadband via cable modem is available in many of the region's towns,11 but there are still many gaps in this coverage that negatively impact business, health, and education.12

In its 2018 Broadband Deployment Report, the Federal Communications Commission found that, on average, fixed and/or mobile broadband had only been adopted 71.5 percent of the residents of the 11-county region analyzed here, and that services guaranteeing the Commission's definition of “broadband” (25 Mbps/3 Mbps) are only available to 74.1 percent of residents.13 There was also a significant gap in rural and urban availability in this 11-county region, with the Commission finding that such services were only available to 54.9 percent of residents in rural areas as opposed to 91.2 of residents in urban areas.14 Residents of many small villages and rural areas remain dependent on landline phone service, and some have adopted satellite services for information and entertainment.15 Meanwhile, without reliable cellular coverage throughout the region, mobile broadband is obviously a practical impossibility. In 2017, the American Community Survey (operated by the United States Census Bureau) found that residents of North Central Pennsylvania are dependent on cable modem services for Internet access; in all of the eleven counties, at least 40.9 percent of residents use this type of service, and at least 65 percent for Bradford and Elk Counties.16 These results are similar to most of the rest of Pennsylvania, but it is important to note that the Census data do not include a distinction between urban and rural areas, and recall from earlier that fixed cable modem services are typically only available in North Central Pennsylvania's towns. Thus, if the typical citizen in this region desires Internet connectivity, they often must subscribe to more expensive satellite services or resort to mobile connectivity via cellular phones, and the poor availability of cellular networks throughout the region illustrates the hardships faced by the area's residents.

Like in much of the rest of the United States, Verizon and AT&T are the primary cellular network carriers in North Central Pennsylvania.17 For many small towns in the region, there is no consumer cellular coverage at all, due to the usual factors that have restricted other types of development in the region, from rugged topography and thinly spread populations to a shortage of transportation infrastructure.18 Furthermore, access to cellular service in the region may only guarantee the ability to receive a voice call, with no guarantee of functionality for the significant data transfers that characterize the term broadband.19

Verizon's network coverage maps were used as the basis for this study. That company is most prevalent across North Central Pennsylvania, with AT&T and T-Mobile offering slightly less geographic coverage. Sprint is almost entirely absent across the region. Therefore, Verizon's maps illustrate the extent of network coverage in North Central Pennsylvania. Cellular subscribers who live in covered areas are most likely to be within the range of Verizon's network, with AT&T as the second most likely possibility, followed by T-Mobile. Consequently, those customers in areas with network coverage have a maximum of three competitive options, and often even fewer than that. Meanwhile, a significant portion of the region has no cellular coverage at all.

Figure 3 shows Verizon's self-produced network coverage map for North Central Pennsylvania, roughly corresponding to the counties listed in the section “The Geography of North Central Pennsylvania.” The region shown in the image is approximately 170 miles wide from east to west. Some unserved areas (white) are typical cases of remoteness, such as the large zone between US Route 15 and US Route 220 at the far right of the image. A closer look at many of the other unserved areas, particularly in the middle of the region, reveal dendritic (“tree-like”) patterns in which river valleys are unserved (white) but nearby plateau tops have coverage (red).20 Many of those unserved river valleys include small towns. Examples of both these types of unserved areas will be described in detail in this study, as well as some areas in which service is extant in uninhabited areas.

FIGURE 3

Verizon Network Coverage in North Central Pennsylvania

FIGURE 3

Verizon Network Coverage in North Central Pennsylvania

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As can be seen in the map, there are significant gaps in cellular network coverage across the region. Some unserved areas are simply uninhabited districts at considerable distances from population centers, as is typical of coverage gaps in other areas of the United States. However, most of North Central Pennsylvania faces the twin challenges of moderately populous but thinly scattered residents, and a deeply carved plateau landscape.

While in a North Central Pennsylvania valley, you may think that you are surrounded by hills, but what appear to be hills are actually artifacts of water erosion that has carved deep canyons into a high and relatively flat plateau that maintains a remarkably consistent elevation.21 This article uses the term “plateau tops” for these high-elevation areas bisected by deep valleys; geographers call them “accordant summits.”22 Erosion of the plateau has created a dendritic pattern of river valleys that can be as little as one-half of a mile wide, hemmed in between steep canyon walls leading to relatively flat land on top, which in turn drops down into the next deep river valley.

Most of the region's residents live in small towns in the bottoms of valleys, while plateau-top areas are typically uninhabited. Geographers have noted that “From a fire tower or scenic overlook anywhere in the rough central part of the state, one can look out and see a planar horizon that looks as if some gigantic carpenter's plane had trimmed off all the ridge crests to about the same elevation.”23 From that type of overlook, you can easily see faraway plateau tops that rise to the same elevation as yourself, but you cannot see into a much closer narrow valley.

The same is true of cellular network signals extending from a plateau-top tower. For instance, imagine a cellular tower on the green plateau top at the right of Figure 4. Signals from that tower can reach other plateau tops a significant distance away because they are at nearly the same elevation, but the contours of the plateau disrupt line-of-sight propagation in the downward direction into a much closer valley. In effect, cellular signals sail clear over the valley on their way to distant plateau tops.24

FIGURE 4

Typical North Central Pennsylvania Topography (Exaggerated)

FIGURE 4

Typical North Central Pennsylvania Topography (Exaggerated)

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Figure 5 is a view of the small village of Blackwell in southwestern Tioga County, illustrating a particularly dramatic example of the rugged topography of North Central Pennsylvania. The village is alongside a river that has carved a deep canyon (Pine Creek Gorge) into the high and relatively flat-topped plateau. The area visible in this picture has at least three other narrow valleys into which you cannot see, though you can see faraway plateau tops with relative ease. Blackwell has no reliable consumer cellular coverage.25 The plateau top spot where this picture was taken, about 900 feet above and one linear mile from Blackwell,26 does have line-of-sight coverage from network towers located several miles away.27

FIGURE 5

Blackwell in Pine Creek Gorge, Tioga County

FIGURE 5

Blackwell in Pine Creek Gorge, Tioga County

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Incongruously, most of the nearly uninhabited flat plateau-top areas of North Central Pennsylvania receive nearly blanket network coverage, but these signals cannot reach inhabited riverside valleys because the contours of the plateau disrupt line-of-sight propagation in the downward direction from the surrounding edges of the plateau.28 This is a function of the region's topography. Other examples of such landscapes, in which uninhabited high-elevation areas enjoy cellular coverage while inhabited low valleys are neglected, include the Catskill Mountains of southeastern New York State and the Allegheny Plateau that covers most of the eastern half of West Virginia.29

Typically, the towns do not have their own local, low-elevation network towers because those would need to be connected to other network infrastructure via fiber-optic cables (uneconomical due to the long distances and low populations that would benefit from them), or microwave connections (impractical due to the steep canyon walls nearby).30 Most of the towns would be within range of antenna towers if those were placed at strategic locations on top of the nearby canyon walls, and those towers could provide backhaul service.31

It may seem to be a simple matter to place equipment in such areas that are just uphill from unserved towns in valleys. A cellular base station with direct fiber-optic and/or microwave connections to the service provider's backbone network may still be impractical, but multihop backhaul connectivity could be extended from served areas downhill into currently unserved valley communities.32 In fairness, until recently it was difficult if not impossible to place antenna towers in such areas due to the rugged topography and lack of transportation infrastructure. In other words, there was literally no way to haul such equipment to the top of the canyon. However, in recent years, the fracking industry has exploded across the region, as operators drill for fossil fuels in remote locations and build their own gravel access roads across extensive areas that were previously far out of reach for heavy vehicles. Now, plateau-top areas with cellular coverage, just a short distance above unserved small towns, really can be reached by vehicles carrying infrastructure equipment.

This study will recommend that the growing network of dirt roads that have segmented the vast forests on North Central Pennsylvania's plateau tops be used for something more than just extraction industries. Telecommunications infrastructure could be delivered to such locations via roads that the various government agencies of Pennsylvania have already approved for other uses.

Fracking and Communications in North Central Pennsylvania

In recent years, North Central Pennsylvania is experiencing another phenomenon with significant impacts for the region: the rapid expansion of the natural gas extraction industry, utilizing the recently perfected “hydraulic fracturing” drilling technique, which in turn is known colloquially as “fracking.” In short, a well shaft is drilled toward an underground rock formation, and fluid is injected into the well at very high pressure to create artificial fractures in the rock below the bottom of the shaft, thus releasing previously trapped natural gas.33

As of 2018, North Central Pennsylvania (as defined in this article) contains approximately 2900 active fracking wells, the vast majority of which have been drilled since 2008.34 According to the most recent state statistics, 1,026 of those (located at 239 pad sites) are within the boundaries of the region's State Forests,35 where public land use rules apply. The remainder are on private land, for which fracking firms typically pay royalties to private owners. For these types of wells, local zoning laws will apply.36

In North Central Pennsylvania, fracking wells are typically drilled in uninhabited backwoods locations to avoid local citizen opposition,37 and to partake of advantageous negotiations with relatively amenable private owners of remote forested tracts.38 Well sites are also found in State Forest Lands, where somewhat stricter public use regulations apply.39 The typical arrangement in the region is for one company to operate clusters of fracking wells drilled within a few miles of each other, with the collected fuel sent through small feeder pipelines to a centralized compressor station. A natural gas compressor station is rather similar to an oil refinery, as “raw” natural gas from the nearby wells is collected, cleaned up, and pressurized.40 Communications equipment follows the same scheme; most fracking wells in areas of extant but relatively weak consumer cellular service use their own antennas and signal boosters to connect to the wireless telecommunications network, and those are often pointed toward more robust transceivers at the respective compressor stations.41

In North Central Pennsylvania, most fracking wells and compressor stations are in plateau-top areas, which (for reasons described in the section “Cellular Coverage in North Central Pennsylvania”) almost always lie within consumer cellular network coverage thanks to their high elevation, while nearby towns in valleys often have no network service. The plateau-top network coverage, while present, might be weak in these areas, so fracking operators use Yagi or Omni (omnidirectional) antennas to boost the local coverage and create microcells for more dependable voice and data transmission. Figure 6 depicts a fracking well site operated by Seneca Resources in southeastern McKean County.42 Note the pole with Yagi antenna, which is pointed toward the nearest consumer network antenna tower, about four miles to the north outside the village of Clermont.43 A small solar panel is just barely visible in the image, near the bottom of the pole.

FIGURE 6

A Natural Gas Well Site in McKean County

FIGURE 6

A Natural Gas Well Site in McKean County

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Another technique is used when there is no nearby consumer network tower. The small directional Yagi antennas at well sites often point toward the nearest compressor station, which may have a significant communications tower with microwave and/or satellite equipment for dependable, high-capacity connections to the public cellular network. Figure 7 depicts a compressor station serving a cluster of well pad sites operated by Anadarko or ARD in Clinton County. The communications tower is more than 200 feet tall and is topped with microwave transceivers.

FIGURE 7

A Natural Gas Compressor Station in Clinton County

FIGURE 7

A Natural Gas Compressor Station in Clinton County

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Communication requirements at natural gas sites include continuous data transmission from monitoring equipment, measuring statistics like well pressurization and flow volume, to a home office from where the equipment is monitored remotely. Meanwhile, once well pad sites and their nearby compressor stations are in active operation, technicians visit periodically and may make voice calls to the home office.44Figure 8 depicts remote monitoring equipment at a compressor station in Lycoming County that serves several nearby well pad sites operated by Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE), with the Yagi antenna pointing toward a different PGE site that houses a high tower with microwave transceivers.

FIGURE 8

Remote-Controlled Monitoring Equipment at a Fracking Site in Lycoming County

FIGURE 8

Remote-Controlled Monitoring Equipment at a Fracking Site in Lycoming County

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Both data and voice communications from fracking sites require reliable cellular network connections to the home office, which is accomplished via a variety of techniques based on local network availability, with Yagi and/or Omni antennas used at most well pad sites, and microwave and/or satellite transceivers used at compressor stations and some larger pad sites. These various techniques usually create microcells, or small islands of reliable coverage in areas where the line-of-sight coverage from the nearest consumer network tower is present but possibly weak.45 Due to the uninhabited nature of the areas directly surrounding most natural gas sites in North Central Pennsylvania, for all intents and purposes those companies are the only beneficiaries of this enhanced cellular connectivity.

Coverage at compressor stations is typically obtained from consumer network towers at relatively nearby plateau-top locations, and occasionally from towers constructed by the Pennsylvania State Police or Bureau of Forestry for their own usage (safety and maintenance) in areas with weak consumer network coverage.46 The present author personally inspected several fracking sites in Lycoming, Clinton, and McKean Counties that illustrate this type of network tower placement. The author also observed fracking wells in Sullivan County with no local consumer cellular network coverage at all, with connectivity being obtained from towers housing equipment pointing directly at the sites while neglecting the surrounding area in which residents have no service. And finally, there are several uninhabited areas in North Central Pennsylvania that have reliable consumer network coverage that has traditionally been used by nobody, with the natural gas industry partaking of such service in recent years. All three of these patterns of cellular availability and network tower placement illustrate arguably unfair advantages for the frackers while nearby citizens have been neglected. Examples of each will be discussed in detail in the following two sections, after a brief explanation of how exemplary sites were selected.

Methodology

This study seeks to find areas in North Central Pennsylvania at which cellular network service is available at fracking installations but not in nearby inhabited communities. Sites were initially selected informally by reviewing consumer network coverage maps, and then these sites were inspected on the ground to confirm the presence or absence of cellular connectivity. As an exercise in policy research, locations of interest will be discussed in the section “Examples of Unserved Areas” as case studies that illustrate a disconnect between cellular availability and Pennsylvania's policies on providing reliable connections to advanced telecommunications services to all residents. The selected locations serve as case studies that illustrate unserved areas that either contradict (or have been left behind by) Pennsylvania's policies on network coverage and connectivity. Those policies are described in detail in the section “Ramifications and Recommendations.”

To verify the geographic accuracy of this article's statements on consumer cellular coverage or the lack thereof, carrier network coverage maps (particularly Verizon's, as the most prevalent carrier North Central Pennsylvania) were compared to multicompany maps from the consumer comparison service WhistleOut.47 These were found to largely correspond with each other, with some minor exceptions in “boundary” areas between extant coverage and absent coverage. All parties note that geographic coverage may vary from that depicted in network maps, which are usually used to promote a carrier's services to the public regardless of accuracy.48 With one exception caused by private land restrictions, the author personally visited all locations described in this study, including all of the individually named fracking sites and all but one of the antenna towers, to verify the presence or absence of consumer network coverage, making measurements for consumer cellular frequencies with a radio frequency detector.49 This study does not intend to analyze the accuracy of network coverage maps; instead, exemplary locations were selected as case studies to illustrate the patterns of cellular coverage that are the focus of the study, and the author spot-checked network coverage in those locations.

The author chose to measure cellular service at or near fracking sites to illustrate the fact that these operations are the only consistent users of the service in otherwise uninhabited areas. The reader should note that it is impossible to fully approach most fracking sites in North Central Pennsylvania because of private property restrictions. The author only approached the named fracking sites via bicycle or car on roads that are open to the public, or by accompanying authorized State Forest personnel, or by hiking through publicly accessible State Forest tracts. Thus, the author made efforts to approach as closely to the named sites as was prudent to measure communications frequencies.

Selected locations that illustrate the geographic challenges described in this study are found in both inhabited areas with no consumer coverage, and uninhabited areas that may or may not have coverage. Uninhabited areas were further studied for the presence of nonresidential operations that may be able to take advantage of network coverage, especially fracking wells and occasionally state government maintenance activities. Areas that have no cellular network coverage at all but also have fracking operations were further inspected to determine how or if those operations can communicate with the rest of the world.50

The nonprofit AntennaSearch website51 and the ASR (Antenna Search Registration) database at the Federal Communications Commission website52 were used to find the locations of antenna towers, plus ownership information. Discrepancies between these two sites and the difficulties of using either for large geographic searches thwarted an attempt to determine the precise quantity of cellular antennas in the region.53 Therefore, once again specific examples were selected as case studies that can illustrate the geographic challenges described in this study. The author visited these selected locations in June through August 2018 with equipment to measure communications frequencies and GPS data.54

Examples of Unserved Areas

This section analyzes three different types of areas in North Central Pennsylvania that illustrate patterns in which fracking installations enjoy cellular network availability but nearby inhabited communities do not. In their own ways, these areas illustrate patterns of land use and infrastructure development that may contradict Pennsylvania's telecommunications policies and regulations. The final section of the article, “Ramifications and Recommendations,” will discuss the regulations at issue and how they can be altered or reinterpreted to address the challenges faced in the selected locations introduced in the following section.

Unserved Inhabited Valleys with Extant Plateau-Top Coverage Just Above

The area known as lower Pine Creek Gorge in western Lycoming County was chosen as one example of an area in which towns in a deep, steep-sided valley have no cellular network coverage but plateau tops a very short linear distance away do have coverage, with that coverage being utilized by almost nobody except the natural gas industry. The author surveyed the situation in the villages of Waterville and Jersey Mills.

Figure 9 depicts Verizon's network coverage map for western Lycoming County. This is a striking demonstration of how consumer cellular network coverage is shaped by the rugged topography of the region. Most of the unserved areas in this map (white) are low-elevation river valleys with scattered small settlements, and most of the areas with available service (red) are high-elevation plateau-top landscapes with no permanent residents. The river valleys housing the towns of Jersey Mills and Waterville are one-half mile wide or less.55

FIGURE 9

Verizon Network Coverage in Western Lycoming County

FIGURE 9

Verizon Network Coverage in Western Lycoming County

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Figure 10 is a view into the small town of Waterville (pop. 355), a popular gateway with restaurants and hotels catering to outdoor sports enthusiasts headed to nearby Pine Creek Gorge. Waterville is at the bottom of a deep river valley and has no residential cellular service. Plateau-top areas less than one-half of a linear mile away have coverage from a state-owned communications tower on a plateau top that is itself just one mile from town,56 though much of the town is out of the line of sight of this tower due to intervening hillsides. There is also a fracking well site, at which the author detected cellular coverage, on the plateau top straight ahead in this photo. That site is owned by PGE57 and is about 1,100 feet above and 1.3 miles outside the town.

FIGURE 10

Waterville, Lycoming County

FIGURE 10

Waterville, Lycoming County

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There are several such plateau-top fracking sites, all with their own gravel access roads, within a few linear miles of Waterville, and all are within the jurisdiction of Tiadaghton State Forest. Also, a cluster of well pad sites operated by Anadarko or ARD to the west of town obtain cellular connectivity from a State Police/Bureau of Forestry antenna tower,58 though signals from that tower do not reach into Waterville either.

Figure 11 is a Google Earth image of the village of Jersey Mills (pop. 32), in Pine Creek Gorge north of Waterville, and fracking facilities on top of the plateau nearby. The village has no consumer cellular service. The plateau-top area just to the east features several fracking wells, and the author was able to detect cellular coverage at the rectangular well pad site just below the center of the image. That particular well pad site is operated by PGE and has its own gravel access road,59 and is about 1,150 feet above and just two-thirds of a linear mile over from Jersey Mills. This area is within Tiadaghton State Forest.

FIGURE 11

Jersey Mills and Nearby Fracking Site

FIGURE 11

Jersey Mills and Nearby Fracking Site

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Another example of this phenomenon can be found in western Tioga County, in a narrow valley carved by the upper reaches of Pine Creek. There are several inhabited villages in this low valley with weak or absent network coverage, though plateau-top coverage is available a short distance away. These towns are served by US Route 6, a major thoroughfare in the region.

Figure 12 is Verizon's network coverage map for western Tioga County. Just like in the area around Waterville and Jersey Mills, most of the unserved areas in this map (white) are low-elevation river valleys with scattered small villages, and most of the areas with available service (red) are high-elevation plateau-top landscapes with no permanent residents. The main river valley traversed by Route 6 is about one mile wide; at Manhattan and Rexford, the distance between plateau-top areas with network coverage is even less than that.60 The plateau tops on either side of this unserved valley are within the jurisdiction of Tioga State Forest. The author detected plateau-top cellular coverage less than one-half of a linear mile to the north of both of those villages.

FIGURE 12

Verizon Network Coverage in Western Tioga County

FIGURE 12

Verizon Network Coverage in Western Tioga County

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Figure 13 shows a communications antenna tower at the edge of the plateau top, overlooking a valley along US Route 6 in Potter County. The valley containing Manhattan and Rexford has no such tower; this one, located on private land,61 serves a very similar valley area just thirteen miles to the west. Per the focus of this article, industrial development sites and their access roads could be utilized for the construction of consumer telecommunications infrastructure that would benefit Manhattan, Rexford, and the rest of their valley. Thus far, frackers have not yet reached the edges of the plateau above those villages, though there are several well pad sites less than three miles to the south.62 Regardless, there are some narrow dirt roads, which probably once led to hunting camps, departing northbound from US Route 6 between the two towns, and these lead easily to spots (within State Forest lands) on the edge of the plateau that could be utilized for wireless communications infrastructure.

FIGURE 13

Plateau-Edge Antenna Tower in Potter County

FIGURE 13

Plateau-Edge Antenna Tower in Potter County

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Large Unserved Areas in Which Frackers Are Believed to Use Alternative Connection Methods

The western half of Sullivan County, and adjacent areas just to the north in Bradford County, have been particularly neglected by the consumer telecommunications carriers. Service is absent across large tracts of this region, though it appears that this has not stopped the natural gas industry from communicating wirelessly.

Figure 14 depicts Verizon's network coverage map for the western half of Sullivan County.63 The large unserved area (white) features river valleys between high plateau tops like the other areas in this study, but also many relatively flat zones featuring farms. The area northeast of Forksville displays the pattern of cellular coverage seen in the areas studied previously in this article, with no service in low valleys although service is available on high plateau tops nearby.

FIGURE 14

Verizon Network Coverage in Western Sullivan County

FIGURE 14

Verizon Network Coverage in Western Sullivan County

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That coverage pattern could be true for the large region to the west, and most of the area between the small towns of Shunk and Hillsgrove could be covered by the cellular network except for a few low dendritic valleys. There are simply fewer network towers in this region to provide service at any elevation, which is probably a function of sparse population and lack of carrier interest, but several small villages and numerous farms (especially near Shunk) are still neglected.

Fracking in Sullivan County is mostly performed on private lands and does not exhibit the patterns of site placement and access roads seen in the State Forest districts described earlier. Most of the fracking sites in Sullivan County inspected by the author, near Shunk in the northwestern corner of the county, are on former farmlands that have been leased or purchased by natural gas companies from their previous owners and fenced off to outsiders. Most of these are still surrounded by working farms or rural homes. Shunk and its nearby farming areas do not have consumer cellular coverage. However, the natural gas industry has apparently managed to connect to the public wireless network via some unconventional methods.

Figure 15 features a fracking well pad site near Shunk. The author was unable to directly photograph the most relevant spots at this site due to a private property fence erected by Chief Oil and Gas LLC, and an older residents-only private road. The fracking well equipment rests on top of the artificially raised area on the left,64 and in the distance is a mostly bare antenna tower with just one microwave relay dish (about halfway up the visible portion; see the yellow arrow) that is pointed directly toward this fracking site.65 The consumer network coverage maps for Verizon and all other national carriers place this spot in the midst of a vast white unserved area, though the author was able to pick up some communications frequencies in the cellular range. This is possibly a case of communications infrastructure development for the benefit of one powerful industry (natural gas) in an area in which consumers have been neglected.66 There are several farms and rural homes adjacent to this fracking site.

FIGURE 15

Remote Communications Tower near Shunk

FIGURE 15

Remote Communications Tower near Shunk

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The author observed another questionable use of communications technology by the natural gas industry in this region. In Summer 2018, a new natural gas pipeline was being constructed across PA Route 154 about five miles northwest of Shunk, in southern Bradford County just to the north of the boundary with Sullivan County (at the extreme northwestern corner of the map in Figure 14). In an area also devoid of consumer cellular coverage, the pipeline construction site was served by its own temporary antenna, on a pole about 100 feet high (see Figure 16).67 This one is an omnidirectional antenna that may have been able to pick up signals outside of the cellular frequency range for specialized communications use. Notably, this construction zone is on state-owned land in State Game Land #12.

FIGURE 16

Antenna Used by Pipeline Construction Site in Southern Bradford County

FIGURE 16

Antenna Used by Pipeline Construction Site in Southern Bradford County

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Large Areas with Reliable Service but Few or No Inhabitants, with Frackers as the Only Notable Beneficiaries

North Central Pennsylvania features many uninhabited areas with no permanent human habitations for a considerable distance. Counterintuitively, and unlike the problems of inhabited river valleys discussed earlier, these uninhabited areas, if they are high in elevation, are often covered by cellular network service that is utilized by nobody but occasional sportsmen, state employees, and (increasingly) the natural gas industry. This largely unused coverage is the result of two factors: first, the general desire of service providers to avoid large gaps in their coverage areas (notwithstanding especially rugged spots) in order to achieve geographic continuity;68 and second, the fact that plateau-top areas in North Central Pennsylvania are at remarkably similar elevations, thus enabling line-of-sight coverage from network towers a significant distance away. While this phenomenon results in “served” areas with cellular network coverage, unlike the unserved areas discussed earlier, it serves as an illustration of how cellular coverage can be found in uninhabited areas of North Central Pennsylvania that are tantalizingly close to towns that have no service.

One example of this effect can be found in a largely uninhabited area of southern McKean County and northeastern Elk County, between the tiny village of Clermont and Elk State Park. Figure 17 depicts Verizon's coverage map for this area, measuring about seven by eleven miles. Elk State Park is at the lower left; note the one paved road in the area and the absence of named towns. (Towns are usually denoted reliably in Verizon's maps.)69 Unlike the area around Waterville and Jersey Mills, for example, this area features a very wide plateau-top area at a high elevation, interrupted by just a few river valleys. Once again, cellular coverage follows the contours of the region, with covered areas on the high plateau (red) and uncovered valleys (white).

FIGURE 17

Verizon Network Coverage in Southern McKean County and Northeastern Elk County

FIGURE 17

Verizon Network Coverage in Southern McKean County and Northeastern Elk County

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This area enjoys wide and relatively uninterrupted cellular coverage, but it is interesting to note that the pictured area has no permanent human habitations. The nearest community is Clermont, just outside the northern boundary of this image. Clermont is itself about ten miles by road from the nearest other inhabited village. Thus, this widespread cellular network connectivity was, until recently, used by nobody and was essentially wasted. But in recent years, this connectivity has obtained a new customer in the natural gas industry, as several dozen wells have been drilled in this region, particularly in the high plateau area to the east of the lake.70 That area is now traversed by a dramatically expanded dirt road that formerly led to a few remote hunting camps, with the road now reinforced for heavy truck traffic.71

Another example of this phenomenon can be found along the border of Clinton and Lycoming Counties, in a high plateau area traversed by the desolate PA Route 44. Figure 18 shows a complex of two consumer network towers built in 2000 and 2012 respectively,72 on the high plateau top just off Route 44 in a remote corner of northwestern Lycoming County. The surrounding area is almost completely devoid of human habitation, with no permanent residential settlements in high plateau-top areas for at least ten miles in every direction. Signals from this complex fly right over the inhabited Pine Creek Gorge just three miles to the east, which contains the small and unserved villages of Slate Run and Cedar Run.

FIGURE 18

A Remote Communications Tower Complex in Lycoming County

FIGURE 18

A Remote Communications Tower Complex in Lycoming County

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Traditionally, the mostly uninhabited plateau top around this complex is home to hunting camps that are only occupied by hunters for a few days each year; those hunters may now be able to enjoy cellular connectivity. The only traditional, year-round establishments in the nearby plateau-top area known to the author are two watering holes patronized mostly by hunters and motorcyclists: Black Forest Inn about three miles north, and Pat Reeder's Tavern about five miles south. Except for those businesses, the cellular coverage provided by this tower complex is largely unused, but in recent years, many new fracking well sites and related infrastructure have been developed around Pat Reeder's. As opposed to citizen consumers, the fracking industry is overwhelmingly the primary user of the network coverage provided by this antenna tower complex.

This area also illustrates the proliferation of forest areas that have been cleared for natural gas wells and compressor stations, and the gravel roads that have been built or expanded to provide access to them.73Figure 19, depicting an area to the south of the tower complex described in the last two paragraphs, is a striking aerial illustration of the Pennsylvania fracking craze. This Google Earth image shows a small portion of Tiadaghton State Forest, about three by six miles in area, along the border of Clinton and Lycoming Counties northwest of Haneyville. Coudersport Pike, the paved north–south road, is PA Route 44. Pat Reeder's Tavern, the only traditional year-round establishment in this immediate area, is in the unforested zone just north of the intersection of Coudersport Pike and Hyner Mountain Road. The nearby consumer network tower complex, described earlier, is about four miles beyond the northern edge of this image.

FIGURE 19

Natural Gas Sites in Tiadaghton State Forest

FIGURE 19

Natural Gas Sites in Tiadaghton State Forest

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The light green stripe that leads roughly through the center of the image in Figure 19 is an older long-distance swath for power lines and pipelines along which trees were removed. Each gray rectangle is a fracking well site; each of those visible in this image is at least 3.5 acres in area (well pad sites in State Forests are up to seven acres in area74) and each has at least four individual drilled wells (sites in State Forests can have up to ten wells75). These sites were carved out of the forest within about the past ten years; two of these (both near the top of the image) have large artificial ponds for the storage of fresh water for use in the fracking process,76 and all have their own gravel roads for vehicle access. Those roads are typically off-limits to all but fracking company personnel. Coudersport Pike, Hyner Mountain Road, and just one of the gravel roads (leading south from the latter) are the only roads in the area that are open between citizens.

While the extant cellular coverage in areas like these may seem to contradict the themes of this article, in their own way, they further illustrate the inefficient deployment of consumer network coverage in North Central Pennsylvania. Connectivity in a vast uninhabited area is of little use while inhabited towns continue to go without. The natural gas industry has experienced a stroke of luck when setting up operations in areas with network coverage that is useful to nobody but itself. This is because telecommunications antenna towers have been constructed in areas that are relatively easy to reach, while the carriers have received little incentive to build similar towers in areas that are harder to reach but where they would be much more useful. Frackers have built infrastructure, most notably cleared plots and roads to them, that could alleviate this problem.

Ramifications and Recommendations

As described throughout this article, cellular network coverage in North Central Pennsylvania has many gaps, with significant areas lacking service due to low population and rugged topography. Areas that have coverage are not out of the woods either, as there is even less consumer cellular network competition in this region than elsewhere. At no point in North Central Pennsylvania can consumers choose from all four of the major national carriers. Those living in served areas can connect to Verizon and most probably AT&T, while some will also have access to T-Mobile. Sprint is almost completely absent in the region. So even if they can receive cellular service, the citizens of the region already have limited competitive options.

Meanwhile, many of the small towns in the region with no cellular connectivity at all are less than one mile from plateau-top areas where coverage is present, but no efforts have been made to focus that coverage downhill into the narrow, rugged valleys where the towns are located. From the corporate point of view, this may be cost-effective due to low population density,77 but recall that Pennsylvania has endeavored to tackle the weak telecommunications service in the general region as a public interest-oriented project.78 Public interest concerns could overcome corporate profit motives to extend plateau-top service, which is typically used by nobody but frackers and the occasional outdoorsperson, a short distance downhill into inhabited valleys.

While the telecommunications carriers could be criticized for their lack of interest in building the necessary infrastructure in thinly populated and apparently unprofitable areas, it is not their fault that the region has been cursed with a topography that has thwarted other types of infrastructure in the past, including high-capacity railroads and highways. If the carriers remain uninterested in extending fiber-optic and/or microwave backbone networks into North Central Pennsylvania's rugged valleys, towers housing less expensive backhaul equipment could conceivably be placed in strategic plateau-top areas. This type of solution has already been implemented for Native American communities in a similar landscape in Southern California.79 For North Central Pennsylvania, this article does not attempt to convince cellular network providers of the desirability of extending coverage into these areas, as they will continue to view the issue in terms of their own interests in profitability and logistical planning. Instead, this article will recommend new interpretations of existing policies and regulations at the state government level that could facilitate solutions, in conjunction with the state's public interest goals for extending telecommunications services.

For North Central Pennsylvania, until recently it was impractical or impossible to transport equipment to strategic plateau-top locations, once again due to the rugged topography and lack of nearby roads. The natural gas industry is unwittingly solving this problem. Now there really is access to such locations that could be used strategically by telecommunications service providers. This study has highlighted several such possibilities; one obvious example is a fracking well pad that has been artificially landscaped with about five acres of trees removed, above the cellular-deprived Jersey Mills. This site is about 1,150 feet above and just two-thirds of a linear mile over from the village. This spot, or a spot near it, could be a prime location for comparatively inexpensive backhaul equipment that could extend the already extant plateau-top cellular coverage downhill toward the village and its environs.80 And there is no longer any reason to conclude that the area is inaccessible, because the fracking firm has a gravel road, reinforced for truck traffic, leading directly to its well pad.

Most such fracking access roads, particularly on State Forest lands, are merely reinforced versions of older one-lane dirt roads that led to hunting camps or recreation spots. State Forest regulations have allowed the expansion of these roads for the sole benefit of the natural gas industry.81 As of 2014, 161 miles of roads were constructed or reinforced in Pennsylvania's State Forests to facilitate natural gas development.82 State regulations already govern how roads on State Forest lands are used,83 and such regulations could be easily adapted to require shared use by trucks for the two different industries: fracking and telecommunications. In non-state-owned areas, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has also allowed the expansion of previously narrow dirt roads for the benefit of frackers,84 with one such example being observed during this project in the fracking zone south of Clermont in McKean and Elk Counties. Other relevant industries, most notably telecommunications, should be encouraged and permitted to use these roads too.

Flexible interpretations of the public interest-oriented provisions of Pennsylvania's telecommunications law could also justify use of these roads, and the places to which they lead, by more than just the natural gas industry and occasional hunter. One provision of that law denotes the state's goal to “Ensure the efficient delivery of technological advances and new services throughout this Commonwealth in order to improve the quality of life for all Commonwealth residents.”85 In industry parlance, efficient delivery includes not just fast download speeds, but delivery of any service at all into otherwise unserved areas. Regulations that enable the use of roads and lands in these areas by multiple industries would help the state achieve its goal of efficiently delivered telecommunications services.

Meanwhile, another provision of that law denotes the state's goal to “Promote and encourage the provision of competitive services by a variety of service providers on equal terms throughout all geographic areas of this Commonwealth without jeopardizing the provision of universal telecommunications service at affordable rates.”86Geographic areas is obviously the relevant term in this provision, as many areas in North Central Pennsylvania have been neglected by the consumer cellular industry due to the challenges of geography. As we have seen, those challenges are now being conquered by a different industry, and there is little reason for telecommunications firms to still conclude that such areas are beyond reach.

And finally, by law the state has endeavored to “Encourage the competitive supply of any [telecommunications] service in any region where there is market demand.”87 With the government of Pennsylvania concluding, as have most of the other governments in the world, that broadband is necessary for social and economic development,88 this implies that by definition, there is market demand for telecommunications services in areas that do not currently have them. This study recommends that the state consider land usage to be an essential component of its goals to extend advanced services throughout the state, including presently unserved areas like those in the North Central region.

The natural gas industry has cleared many tracts of land in areas that would be advantageous for the expansion of consumer cellular service, has partaken of that service itself, and has built or expanded roads to reach those areas. While the apparent environmental damage caused by land clearing and road construction for the fracking industry is beyond the scope of the present study, some of that damage could be put to uses that benefit other constituencies. Enlightened, public interest-oriented provisions in the state's telecommunications regulations could be used to encourage sharing of fracking roads with other industries. This interpretation could also possibly justify sharing of the land, as relatively small antenna towers with backhaul equipment could conceivably be placed on the large multiacre well pads that have been carved out of the forest by the frackers.

In State Forest lands, such sharing of cleared tracts could be justified via existing land use regulations that have been developed with fracking in mind. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, State Forest officials are responsible for reviewing and approving leases with natural gas companies for their desired tracts of land. This includes “Administering and monitoring infrastructure construction” and “Administering right-of-way agreements.”89 Also, despite Pennsylvania's arcane laws on ownership of subsurface mineral rights,90 all the activities discussed here take place on the surface, and in publicly owned areas the state controls the surface rights.91

This study encourages the state to consider other types of infrastructure, beyond fossil fuel extraction and delivery, when approving such destructive use of State Forest land. The natural gas industry already places Yagi or Omni antennas at most fracking well pad sites to connect to faraway network towers and to boost weak signals, indicating that such tracts are already being used for communications infrastructure. In return for the destruction of pristine forest environments, the communications infrastructure on such tracts could (with a new interpretation of regulations) be used for the benefit of more constituencies than just the natural gas industry. For example, a new antenna tower with relatively inexpensive backhaul capability would be a fine addition at or near the dozens of acres of forest just above Jersey Mills that have already been cleared for a few fracking wells. Trucks already use the road that goes up there as well.

These recommendations will prove to be much trickier outside of State Forest lands.92 For fracking well sites on privately owned lands, local zoning ordinances could possibly be used to encourage sharing of cleared sites for both fracking wells and telecommunications antenna towers. One might find this recommendation to be an invitation for chaos, given the many municipalities, townships, and counties with their own ordinances across the state. Ironically, a regulation that was passed for the benefit of the natural gas industry might enable this type of zoning recommendation. Pennsylvania passed the fracking-specific Act 13 in 2012, with a requirement that local zoning ordinances be consistent in their treatment of the industry and its land usage, with notable use of the phrase “reasonable development of oil and gas resources.”93 Fracking sites on privately owned lands also typically include communications antennas, and with some flexible interpretation, one could conclude that it is reasonable for communications infrastructure to be built alongside fracking infrastructure. Requiring that communications equipment be built for the benefit of the surrounding community, and not just the fracking well operator, could be justified by this provision of Act 13.

That Act also declares that in regards to fracking regulations, the state must “Protect the natural resources, environmental rights and values secured by the Constitution of Pennsylvania.”94 This study recommends that efficient land use be considered as one of the environmental rights and values outlined in that provision,95 and if land will be used for fracking wells and the communications infrastructure used by that fracking firm, the space could also be used for communications infrastructure that benefits nearby communities, if that land is at a location that can be used strategically to provide connectivity for presently unserved citizens.

As noted early in this article, Pennsylvania is engaged in a multiyear project to measure advanced telecommunications service across the state and to address gaps in coverage, making the matters discussed in this study relevant to the state's current initiatives.96 Finding gaps in cellular/wireless availability is relatively straightforward, but filling them will take more effort. While the most advanced broadband services will remain dependent on wired networks, a challenge beyond the scope of this article, gaps in wireless coverage can plausibly be filled thanks to infrastructure that has already been built for the benefit of a different industry: fracking. It is no longer as difficult or expensive to reach unserved areas as the telecommunications carriers have likely concluded in the past.97 The construction of new antenna towers as recommended here will still be subjected to the profit motivations of the carriers, but expanding their markets could be to their benefit, and it would definitely be to the benefit of unserved communities, if strategic and efficient usage of land and access roads can be encouraged by the state via some flexible interpretations of existing statutes and regulations.

Footnotes

This article was presented at the Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (TPRC) in September 2018.

1.

This article uses the Federal Communications Commission's definition of the term unserved to denote a location “that is not within the service contour of any base transmitter in any station authorized to transmit on that channel.” Code of Federal Regulations, 47 CFR § 22.99—Definitions.

2.

Interstate 99 is currently in development and will be built on top of or parallel to the existing US Route 220 from I-80 to Williamsport, and US Route 15 from there to the New York state line. This new interstate will still only extend through Lycoming and Tioga Counties.

3.

The United States Census Bureau defines the “northeastern” United States as the six states of New England plus New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. In the 2010 census, the population density of this region was 366 people per mi2. Mackun and Wilson.

4.

Simkins, 89.

5.

Schein and Miller, 79–80.

6.

Simkins, 90.

7.

Geographic data from: United States Census Gazetteer, accessed July 7, 2018, https://www2.census.gov/geo/docs/maps-data/data/gazetteer/counties_list_42.txt. Population data from: Penn State Harrisburg, Pennsylvania State Data Center, accessed July 7, 2018, https://pasdc.hbg.psu.edu/Data/Census2010/tabid/1489/Default.aspx. The Penn State Harrisburg source is used for all population figures in this article.

8.

Marsh and Lewis, 20–21.

9.

Note that due to throughput capacity issues and carrier business models, it is uncertain if wireless will be able to deliver full broadband services to an increasing population of customers. See, for example, Noam. However, more recent evidence has indicated that advances in mobile wireless capacity and speed have encouraged significant uptake by users (usually via smartphones) in areas where sufficient network coverage is available. See, for example, Manlove and Whitacre. In 2018, the Federal Communications Commission determined that the former disparities in capacity and upload/download speed between fixed and mobile broadband were closing; though there were still some unresolved issues involving carriers' advertised and actual speeds, and overload during peak usage hours. Federal Communications Commission, Office of Engineering and Technology.

10.

Center for Rural Pennsylvania, 9–10. There is evidence dating back to the 1990s that broadband deployment is positively correlated with economic growth, though direct causality has not been confirmed in all locations and situations. See, for example, Czernich et al.; Whitacre, Gallardo, and Strover; Horton.

11.

Cities in the region typically have one option for traditional wired cable television, such as Comcast in Coudersport, Atlantic Broadband in Bradford, or the local PenTeleData in Wellsboro. Such services have limited availability in nearby undeveloped areas. Data obtained from the InMyArea service, https://www.inmyarea.com/.

12.

Sascha Meinrath of Pennsylvania State University has conducted quantitative research on this problem. For an introduction, see Stockton. According to a state government agency, in a call for research proposals titled Analysis of the Demand for Fixed High-Speed (25 Mbps/3 Mbps) Broadband Services in Rural Pennsylvania, “Not all areas in rural Pennsylvania have access to high-speed broadband services (25 Mbps/3 Mbps). Where service is available, affordability can be an issue. Without access to affordable broadband, opportunities for new business development, education and entertainment can be limited.” Center for Rural Pennsylvania, 9–10.

13.

Federal Communications Commission, data compiled from Table F1. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revised its definition of broadband to 25 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload). Achieving such speeds on a cellular network requires substantial infrastructure that is not available in all areas. In 2018, the FCC estimated that more than 15 million Americans lack access to mobile broadband at speeds above 10 Mbps (download), which itself is a mere 40 percent of the Commission's definition of broadband. Ibid., introduction page.

14.

Ibid., data compiled from Table F2.

15.

The author personally observed many residences with satellite dishes from DirecTV or Dish Network while conducting research in the region in Summer 2018, and encountered many of those companies' vehicles on area roads.

16.

Data compiled from various reports and maps available at United States Census Bureau. See also “Policy Map: Percent Households with Broadband Cable, Fiber Optic, or DSL,” accessed June 30, 2019, https://www.policymap.com/maps?i=9968050&btd=4&period=2013-2017&cx=-100.235028880437&cy=38.9957636661428&cz=3. The Census Bureau notes that DSL use is very rare in the region.

17.

The statements on cellular availability in this section of the article are supported by the self-produced network coverage maps offered by each of the four major cellular service providers. For the Verizon map, see https://www.verizonwireless.com/featured/better-matters/?map=4glte#maps; for the AT&T map, see https://www.att.com/maps/reseller.html; for the T-Mobile map, see https://www.t-mobile.com/coverage/coverage-map; for the Sprint map, see https://coverage.sprint.com/IMPACT.jsp?kiosk.

18.

For a discussion of these challenges at the general level, see Melody and Møller, 120.

19.

An area that appears as “covered” on a cellular provider's coverage map may only receive 3G service, with only periodic 4G coverage or none at all, thus creating another challenge for the delivery of mobile broadband. Brodkin, “Verizon Lied about 4G Coverage”; Brodkin, “At Least One Major Carrier.”

20.

Verizon coverage map, retrieved June 28, 2018 from https://www.verizonwireless.com/featured/better-matters/?map=4glte#maps. Throughout the rest of this article, several precise localities within this large map will be discussed with full geographic details.

21.

Marsh and Lewis, 23.

22.

Ibid., 24.

23.

Ibid., 23.

24.

In scientific terms, the Fresnel Zone is the ellipsoidal region in which a receiving device can pick up signals from a wireless transmitter. Depending on the strength and frequency of the signals, various objects (including the ground) can obstruct the Fresnel Zone and therefore reduce or eliminate signal reception. See, for example, Campbell Scientific, Inc.

25.

All statements about the presence or absence of cellular network coverage in this article were verified with measurements made with the author's RF Explorer handheld spectrum analyzer, searching for conventional consumer frequencies of reliable duration and strength. See the section “Methodology” for more information on how locations were selected as case studies to illustrate the themes of this project.

26.

Distance and elevation measurements were made with the author's Garmin Oregon handheld GPS receiver.

27.

A search of the Federal Communications Commission Antenna Structure Database and the nonprofit antennasearch.com site revealed the nearest consumer cellular communications tower to Blackwell (or more precisely, the plateau tops above Blackwell) to be in Wellsboro, about fourteen linear miles away.

28.

Campbell Scientific, Inc.

29.

These unserved areas can be seen easily by zooming in on the nationwide Verizon network coverage map, found at https://www.verizonwireless.com/featured/better-matters/?map=4glte#maps.

30.

Garriott de Cayeux.

31.

“Network Experts Define Backhaul Networks.”

32.

Zaidi and Lan. Such solutions have been implemented in areas with similar geographical characteristics; see the section “Ramifications and Recommendations.”

33.

Krantz. This is a highly simplified explanation of the process, though the fundamental mechanics are largely consistent across various techniques and practices. For a full explanation, see United States Department of Energy, 56–64. This article uses the term “fracking” though note that the industry uses different terms per type of well, typically with the catchall term “unconventional natural gas development.”

34.

Data obtained from StateImpact Pennsylvania, accessed July 3, 2018, http://stateimpact.npr.org/pennsylvania/drilling/; and FracTracker Alliance, accessed July 3, 2018, https://www.fractracker.org/map/us/pennsylvania/pa-shale-viewer/. Figures are approximate because of the difficulty faced by volunteer organizations in obtaining current and accurate state permitting records, the inability of citizens to see and count all backwoods fracking installations personally, and the lack of incentives for fracking companies to accurately report the locations of all their wells.

35.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, “Natural Gas Development and State Forests.” A “pad site” is an artificially flattened and cleared area on which fracking wells are drilled. In North Central Pennsylvania, there are usually multiple wells per pad site.

36.

Nark. Pennsylvania law requires local zoning regulations to be consistent when approving and managing land usage by the fracking industry. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Act 13 of 2012, Oil and Gas (58 PA. C.S.) Omnibus Amendments, §3304. In Pennsylvania law, zoning regulations targeted at other industries, such as retail establishments, are permitted to be variable per a particular community's needs and goals. To the author's knowledge, the enforced consistency of zoning regulations granted to the fracking industry is not enjoyed by any other industry.

37.

See, for example, Colaneri; Godoy; Troutman, Shamer, and Pribanic.

38.

Nark.

39.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, “Guidelines for Administering Oil and Gas Activity,” 22–26.

40.

Messersmith.

41.

The information on fracking well placement and the use of associated network infrastructure in the next several paragraphs is based on personal observations by the author and a personal interview with Ben Gamble of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, July 24, 2018. The author also attempted to confirm these observations with communications specialists at two natural gas firms that operate in the region, after those two firms invited the author to ask specific questions. One of these detailed requests was denied in writing and the other received no response.

42.

Headwaters Investment Corp 4H, permit date 2010-03-10. This and all subsequent well site permit information obtained from FracTracker Alliance, https://www.fractracker.org/map/.

43.

Clermont (pop. 55) is uncommon among villages in the region because it lies on a high plateau top. Thanks to its high elevation, the village enjoys moderate-strength cellular service from Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile. The relevant network tower is registered with the FCC by Cellco Partnership, registration number 1291755, file number A1081120.

44.

The statements in this paragraph about data and voice requirements are based on a personal interview with Ben Gamble of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, July 24, 2018. The author also attempted to confirm these observations with communications specialists at two natural gas firms that operate in the region, after those two firms invited the author to ask specific questions. One of these detailed requests was denied in writing and the other received no response.

45.

Personal interview with Rob Frieden, Pioneers Chair of Telecommunications and Law at Pennsylvania State University, July 16, 2018.

46.

Personal interview with Ben Gamble, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, July 24, 2018. This phenomenon indicates that fracking companies and state government personnel share the problem of lack of connectivity in their operating locations, but in this case, the industry may have gained an unfair advantage by utilizing communications infrastructure that the state built with taxpayer money.

47.

WhistleOut is a private comparison website that aggregates coverage maps from the various cellular service providers and allows users to search by location. Pennsylvania maps can be found at https://www.whistleout.com/CellPhones/Guides/Best-Coverage-in-Pennsylvania-USA. This article does not attempt to address whether this service's maps are accurate or reliable, and the next footnote explains that these ideals cannot be assumed for official company maps either. WhistleOut was selected for its convenient superimposed maps combining coverage areas for all four of the major cellular service providers, in which unserved areas are easily visible.

48.

Due to the impracticality of measuring cellular connectivity at every single spot on the Earth's service, the network maps promoted by carriers typically depict estimated coverage areas based on distance from a transmitter, topography, population, and other factors. Schmidt.

49.

Consumer-grade cellular coverage (or lack thereof) at each selected location was measured by the author's RF Explorer handheld spectrum analyzer. This device was programmed to detect cellular frequency bands used by the four major carriers of commercial cellular service (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile). Particular frequency bands are assigned to each carrier by the Federal Communications Commission, and information on such frequencies can be obtained from the Commission and from each company. For example, T-Mobile has been assigned various groups of frequencies in the 600, 700, 1,700, and 1,900 MHz ranges. Data on the presence and strength of cellular frequencies at each of the selected locations in the study, as of Summer 2018, is available from the author. Admittedly, this was not a precise process and only qualitative statements have been made based on the results. The general trend found in this study was that cellular-grade frequencies could not be detected at the selected locations, or if they were present they were very weak.

50.

Fracking well locations were located via the StateImpact and FracTracker Alliance tools cited earlier, and the author cross-tabulated the selected locations with consumer cellular coverage maps.

51.

http://antennasearch.com/default.asp. At the time of writing, the database utilized by this website was last updated on August 4, 2018. The site does not divulge the source of its location and ownership data for communications antennas, though the author suspects a combination of Federal Communications Commission records and service provider promotional information.

53.

The Federal Communications Commission's Antenna Search Registration site uses a database of tower and antenna registration documents that is known to be incomplete. Personal interview with Rob Frieden, Pioneers Chair of Telecommunications and Law at Pennsylvania State University, July 16, 2018.

54.

Cellular signal coverage (or lack thereof) was measured by the author's RF Explorer handheld spectrum analyzer; elevations and linear distances were measured by the author's Garmin Oregon handheld GPS receiver.

55.

Verizon coverage map, retrieved July 3, 2018 from https://www.verizonwireless.com/featured/better-matters/?map=4glte#maps.

56.

This tower is 330 feet in height and is actually visible from some parts of Waterville, though it is about 1,200 feet higher in elevation. The tower is registered with the FCC by the Statewide Radio Network Division, registration number 1231593, file number A0970519.

57.

COP Tract 729 Pad A 2440, permit date 2012-10-13.

58.

Personal interview with Ben Gamble, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, July 24, 2018.

59.

COP Tract 293 Pad E 2634, permit date 2014-08-27.

60.

Verizon coverage map, retrieved July 4, 2018 from https://www.verizonwireless.com/featured/better-matters/?map=4glte#maps.

61.

Permit and registration information on this tower could not be found at the FCC Antenna Structure Registration website.

62.

The nearest sites are operated by Ultra Resources Inc.

63.

Verizon coverage map, retrieved July 3, 2018 from https://www.verizonwireless.com/featured/better-matters/?map=4glte#maps.

64.

PA Woodlands Unit 1H, permit date 2014-05-07.

65.

This tower is registered with the FCC by the Statewide Radio Network Division, registration number 1065197, file number A0970569. A magnified version of the photograph, in which the antenna tower is much more visible, can be obtained from the author upon request.

66.

The author contacted a communications specialist for a prominent natural gas firm in the region and attempted to ask about this practice. The request for information was denied with no reason given. The discussion took place via e-mail; the name of the employee and company can be obtained from the author upon request.

67.

At the time of writing, the private AntennaSearch service listed this antenna as being registered by the Statewide Radio Network Division, but no record was found at the FCC Antenna Structure Registration database.

68.

See, for example, Meador.

69.

Verizon coverage map, retrieved August 12, 2018, from https://www.verizonwireless.com/featured/better-matters/?map=4glte#maps.

70.

Almost all those fracking sites are owned by Seneca Resources Corp., with some owned by EOG Resources Inc. Except for Elk State Park (around the lake), none of the land in this area is owned by the state.

71.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) manages roads and their adjacent rights-of-way with the goal of providing access to any party who meets certain permitting requirements, including utilities—a category in which the natural gas extraction industry has been classified. See Heavenrich.

72.

The two towers are both registered with the FCC by the Statewide Radio Network Division, registration numbers 1202283 and 1278183, file numbers A0970568 and A0970488, respectively.

73.

According to Ben Gamble of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, in a personal interview with the author on July 24, 2018, natural gas companies select desired sites for drilling new wells or building compressor stations. Wherever possible, state regulations require the expansion and reinforcement of existing State Forest roads (typically one-lane gravel roads built decades previously for access to hunting camps or recreational spots) to allow use by trucks. If such existing roads are not available, new ones are built to the same specifications. Most of the newer roads, and some of the older ones, are now gated by fracking firms to prevent use by citizens.

74.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, “Shale-Gas Monitoring Report,” 37.

75.

Ibid.

76.

The pond to the west is at a well site operated by ARD Operating LLC, COP Tract 285 C 1014H, permit date 2011-04-11; the pond to the east is at a well site operated by Anadarko E&P Onshore LLC, Tract 289 Pad B, permit date 2010-09-30. Those two companies operate all the sites visible in Figure 19. In a process that uses a great amount of electricity and required extensive pipeline construction through forested areas, the fresh water is piped uphill about three miles from Pine Creek, which occupies a deep gorge just to the east of the area depicted in Figure 19. The fresh water is mixed with fracking chemicals at each well site and then injected underground at great pressure to fracture the rocks below and release natural gas. See the longer description of the fracking process in the section “Fracking and Communications in North Central Pennsylvania.”

77.

Rogers, “Rural America Is Building.”

78.

Center for Rural Pennsylvania, 9–10.

79.

The Pala Indian Reservation east of San Diego is located in a landscape with topography similar to that in North Central Pennsylvania, though it is a desert and not forest. The Tribal Digital Village project began installing plateau-edge backhaul equipment, to focus service downhill into villages, as early as 2001. Rogers, “Mexican TV Is Interfering.”

80.

This article does not attempt to propose this solution for all unserved locations in North Central Pennsylvania, because some such spots may be too far away from areas where cellular coverage is found at fracking well sites. The less radical and more traditional expansion of backbone network infrastructure will likely be necessary in those areas.

81.

Personal interview with Ben Gamble, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, July 24, 2018.

82.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, “Shale-Gas Monitoring Report,” 43.

83.

Ibid., 32.

84.

Heavenrich.

85.

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 2016 Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes (2016), Alternative Form of Regulation of Telecommunications Services, Title 66, Chapter 30, §3011(6). Note that due to its constitutional structure of government, Pennsylvania is officially called a “Commonwealth” and not a “State” in statutory and regulatory documents.

86.

Alternative Form of Regulation of Telecommunications Services, §3011(8).

87.

Ibid., §3011(9).

88.

Center for Rural Pennsylvania, 9–10.

89.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, “Shale-Gas Monitoring Report,” 31–32.

90.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

91.

Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, “Shale-Gas Monitoring Report,” 14–15.

92.

Only about 15 percent of the natural gas developments in Pennsylvania are on state-owned lands. Ibid., 188.

93.

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Act 13 of 2012, Oil and Gas (58 PA. C.S.) Omnibus Amendments, §3304(a).

94.

Act 13 of 2012, §3202(4).

95.

Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Article I, Section 27. This amendment, which gives the citizens of Pennsylvania “a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment,” was added in 1971. An expansive view of the state's role in maintaining natural resources “for the benefit of all the people” was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2017. Phillips.

96.

Stockton.

97.

The expense of building cellular networks in rural and thinly populated areas is often cited as a reason for lack of interest by service providers to extend network infrastructure into such areas. See, for example, Bell.

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