June 5, 2020 — Tri-Co Connections, a subsidiary of Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, has taken the rural digital divide in Pennsylvania into its own hands through not only fiber broadband buildout but community collaboration and a hands-on class for senior citizens.
According to Bill Gerski, senior vice president of business development for Tri-Co, no one was previously willing to build broadband infrastructure in northern Pennsylvania because it was not economically sensible.
Tri-Co applied for government grants in counties that can service only about 5.8 houses per mile. So far, the company has raised $51 million of what it deems will be a $77 million project.
Gerski estimated that it will take about five years to provide service to seven rural Pennsylvania counties with fiber broadband, extending about 3,000 miles.
However, Gerski noted two potential adoption issues. First, 42 percent are “seasonals,” meaning they solely come to northern Pennsylvania for vacation and do not live there full-time. Second, more than 40 percent of the targeted area is made up of senior citizens, who might not connect due to limited digital literacy.
They also might have the “fear of being reeducated,” Gerski said, as learning how to connect to broadband and use a computer can be a daunting task for those who do not have experience using 21st century technology.
Bridging the digital literacy gap for seniors
After consulting with community stakeholders, Tri-Co decided to start a program with Potter County to bridge the digital literacy gap for seniors.
The community came together to support the endeavor. Banks donated money to buy computers and other equipment in order to promote online banking in the older demographic.
“The area high school students are a logical resource to support the senior citizens as they learn about the Internet since this generation of students has grown up with technology as a part of their daily lives,” the Tri-Co website said of the program, dubbed Seniors 2 Seniors. “They are a true ‘tech-savvy’ population and can provide valuable support to older adults who are learning to navigate and use new technological skills and information.”
Tri-Co identified six services that seniors were missing out on without the ability to use a computer: connecting with family through Skype or other programs, telemedicine, online government resources, shopping, online employment and improved cognitive functions (mental sharpness and hand-eye coordination).
Applications for broadband also include telemedicine
Jim Kockler, Potter County’s administrator of human services, told Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., in August that not only will the program help senior citizens to communicate with loved ones who live far away via Skype or FaceTime, it will also teach them to use telemedicine, order their prescriptions or pay their bills online.
The announcement of the first class in Potter County drew interest from about 40 seniors, but there was only room for 25, said Gerski.
During hour-long weekly sessions, senior citizens and high school seniors gather in a senior center for mentored internet classes.
“It’s a hands-on program led by an instructor who has vast experience in the field of information technology,” Potter County Education Council Executive Director Dr. Michele Moore explained to Tri-Co. “Additionally, the seniors are being supported in the classroom by senior high school students who have an interest in and experience with computers and technology.”
The young teachers began with preliminary skills such as understanding a keyboard and creating passwords.
Gerski called the eight-week-long course a huge success and said he plans to implement it in the other six counties where Tri-Co is building fiber broadband.
“A lot of times, our senior citizens hear all this negative stuff about the internet, but they don’t hear enough about the positive benefits,” Moore said.
Gerski said it was rewarding to guide a senior through the basics of computer use and then watch them use Skype to talk with their grandkids.
“Now they can go to Amazon and order stuff,” said Gerski. “They couldn’t do that before, and a lot of them live alone.”
‘I don’t want to get left behind,’ pleads one senior in the online course
“I don’t want to get left behind,” a 94-year old student in the course said.
For another Senior 2 Senior student, 68-year old Carol Cole, the computer classes could not have come at a better time. Shortly after completing the training, Cole was forced to hunker down at home to avoid contagion from the coronavirus.
Her technological lifeline was email, a skill she relearned and improved during Senior 2 Senior.
“Knowing more and doing more on the computer is important, especially through crises like this,” said Cole.
Before the Senior 2 Senior training, Cole said she felt stuck trying to learn new skills on the computer. Now she knows how to email, Facebook, online shop, and online bank.
Cole lamented that older adults tend to be afraid“to try new things on a computer. “Working with the senior class was fun,” said Cole. “The kids were energetic.”
The seniors who complete the course receive a certificate and a free installation and free first month of broadband service from Tri-Co.
“If I would have run fiber before teaching them how to use a computer, I would have just had a house that didn’t take any service,” Gerski said.
The ultimate goal, Gerski said, is to provide broadband service and encourage the youth to eventually move back to the area and increase economic development in rural Pennsylvania.
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