Commissioners Hear Recommendations for Rural Broadband

Power Lines

Charles County should consider partnering with Chestertown-based ThinkBig Networks to provide broadband internet service to the approximately 2,300 homes and businesses in and around Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck that are not currently being served by either Verizon or Comcast, the Board of Charles County Commissioners heard last week.

Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, a consulting firm based in Kensington, Md., encouraged the commissioners to execute a partnership with ThinkBig in time for the company to apply for state grant funding that would allow the Chestertown-based internet service provider to install fiber-optic networks to serve those two rural areas that individual internet service providers, or ISPs, would then lease to provide services.

Hovis noted that ThinkBig has entered into similar partnerships with Kent County and Baltimore City to provide high-speed fiber-optic services to underserved areas. In Kent County, the county government receives a portion of the rental fees that the ISPs pay ThinkBig to use the network; presumably, a similar arrangement would be made with Charles County, although this was not explicitly discussed during the presentation to the county commissioners.

Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill that would allow ISPs to “piggyback” on the rights-of-way owned by the state’s rural electric cooperatives in order to reach outlying residents with internet service. Hovis explained that the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative, which has representation on the county’s rural broadband task force, is still exploring the best ways to do that and is not ready to enter into a partnership with the county to provide access to its towers and transmission lines to serve as a fiber-optic “backbone” for ISPs.

Should the county decide to enter into a partnership with ThinkBig, the company would apply for funding from the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband using a letter of support from the county as leverage.

“We think that they’re a potentially viable partner and relatively low risk, assuming that the terms of the partnership between the County and the company are negotiated in a really robust way,” Hovis told the commissioners. “Part of what is low risk, in my view, about this sort of thing is that … in the event that something goes wrong with a partnership or the partner company, the fiber is there, it is built, it is in the rights-of-way, and it is there forever.”

“In that way, it’s very different to other kinds of economic development efforts where jobs can come and they can go, but fiber stays,” Hovis added.

Applications for state funding must be submitted to the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband by Feb. 21 to be considered for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) noted that the Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck areas identified in the CTC study encompass the county’s most economically impoverished and geographically isolated areas, and he hoped that by applying for the state grant, they might be among the first areas to benefit from improved internet connectivity.

In addition to homes and businesses in the Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck areas, CTC also looked the needs of two other categories of unserved residences and businesses: those in isolated pockets that are surrounded by internet services that don’t reach them, usually because there are too few homes and businesses within those pockets; and those that are located at the end of long setbacks or driveways that would require customers to contribute at least some of the cost of installing the connection from the fiber-optic trunk line.

CTC estimates that there are approximately 1,000 unserved homes and businesses in the former category, and up to 1,500 in the latter.

The final report from CTC will recommend that Comcast and Verizon, which both have franchise agreements with the county, should be encouraged to apply for state and federal funds to help defray the costs of providing broadband service to those isolated pockets that are otherwise surrounded by high-speed internet services provided by those companies, in order to fill in the gaps in coverage.

Hovis explained that Comcast did not reply to several inquiries from CTC about whether it would be interested in applying for state and federal grants to help fill in the isolated pockets in its service areas, and Verizon told CTC that it has no interest at all in doing so.

“I think we need to be clear … that the only way that we’re going to be able to make Verizon do anything is going to be from the consumer,” said District 3 Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D). “I think as we communicate to the public, we need to make sure that that message is given to the public. Because at the end of the day, a lot of the people in the community, they blame their elected officials.”

“That needs to be part of our messaging to the community, that it’s really going to be the consumer that makes Verizon or any company changed their business model,” Stewart said.

Deputy county administrator Deborah Hall, who chairs the broadband task force, said that the task force planned to do additional surveys to identify all of the unserved pockets in the county and, if Comcast and Verizon were unwilling to connect them, try to find another company that would be willing to do so.

Stewart suggested that, as it already does with its transportation needs, the county should consider preparing an annual letter laying out its communications infrastructure priorities and sending it to the county’s representatives in Congress.

Bowling agreed with Stewart’s suggestion. “I think we are pushing, the County Commissioners and the staff are pushing, and the task force [is] pushing, to the limit with the County Commissioners and local [residents] can do,” Bowling said. “And now it’s almost getting to the point where either a private entity like Verizon needs to step up, or our federal [elected officials] need to help us out.”

Stewart, Bowling, and District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D) were also in agreement that the owners of residences and businesses that were located more than 300 feet away from Comcast or Verizon trunk lines due to setbacks or long driveways would have to contribute to the cost of providing service, perhaps with some type of matching contribution from the county.

Last Tuesday’s presentation before the board of county commissioners came a little over a year after the commissioners established the task force to prepare a long-term strategy for providing broadband internet service to the parts of the county where high-speed internet access is not currently available. CTC’s study was funded in part by a grant from the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband, which was matched by county funds.

In her remarks, Hovis encouraged the commissioners to think about the broadband strategy as a multi-year effort.

“There’s no strategy under which we’re able to solve the entirety of the broadband challenge in Charles County in one year, or even two, most likely,” Hovis explained. “Part of that is because it’s going to take significant public funding to address the set of rural broadband issues, like all rural infrastructure, and there’s simply not enough funding appropriated at either the federal or the state level to solve this problem for the entire country.”

“I have confidence that over time, we as a nation are going to fund this entire problem at the right level and we’re going to address our rural broadband challenges, but it may take time,” Hovis added. “As you think this through, please don’t look at this as something that has to happen this year. Chipping away at this problem in a meaningful way, year by year, is going to be very important and good progress.”

Hall said that the broadband task force is “about ready” to issue its final report with the full details of the recommendations that were presented to the commissioners. TLR will be covering the report’s release when it happens.