“We got it:” county commissioners approves broadband partnership

Power Lines

The Board of Charles County Commissioners voted unanimously to enter into a public-private partnership with Chestertown-based ThinkBig Networks to provide broadband internet service to thousands of homes and businesses in and around Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck by the end of the summer of 2023.

The agreement to enter into the partnership with ThinkBig, which has enacted similar partnerships with Kent County and Baltimore City, comes nearly two years after the then-newly seated administration of Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) instructed county staff to develop a strategic broadband plan for the county.

“I think what Charles County has accomplished here is a pioneering public-private collaboration that is a model for the state and, in fact, for much of the country,” said Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, a consulting firm based in Kensington, Md., which worked with the county to develop the partnership agreement. “The two agreements deliver something that has been a goal of the county for a long time, which is world-class broadband infrastructure and services in Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck, such that the communities in those two parts of the County will have parity with the more densely populated parts of the County, [and] offered services, infrastructure, and pricing that is comparable to what is available elsewhere.”

Hovis stressed that she believed the two agreements signed by the county and ThinkBig — which authorizes the creation of a public-private partnership between the county and ThinkBig and guarantees the county will own the completed network — were “painstakingly developed and negotiated to protect the interests of the County [and] the interests of the … families and consumers of Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck.”

Under the partnership agreement, Charles County commits to paying $2,598,802 for the construction of the fiber-optic network. Through a separate grant agreement between ThinkBig and the State of Maryland, the state will commit $2,924,083. ThinkBig will contribute at least $215,361 and will assume all operating and maintenance costs. ThinkBig will transfer ownership of the network to the county once the network has been completed and tested to the county’s satisfaction.

The work is scheduled to take place in five phases:

  • Phase 1, encompassing the area between Ironsides Road (Route 425) and Nanjemoy Creek and from Allens Fresh to Newburg, will be completed by January 18, 2022
  • Phase 2, encompassing the northern part of Tayloe Neck and a corridor stretching southeast of Newburg, will be completed by May 30, 2022
  • Phase 3, encompassing an area roughly from Doncaster Demonstration State Forest to the intersection of Ironsides Road and Port Tobacco Road, and the Wicomico River shoreline to Swindler Creek, will be completed by March 8, 2023
  • Phase 4, encompassing the southern portion of the Nanjemoy peninsula and the area between Swindler and Hatton Creeks, will be completed by July 10, 2023
  • Phase 5, encompassing the western shore of the Nanjemoy peninsula, will be completed by August 29, 2023

Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck residents within the proposed funding service area, or PFSA, will not be charged for installation or construction of the first 300 feet of a connection from the network line to their home, provided that the installation can be run along the line of their driveways. Otherwise, ThinkBig will charge residents for the cost of installing the connection. The agreement does not spell out what those costs would be.

According to their website, ThinkBig provides data rates of 1,000 megabits per second (mbps), which it says is up to 50 times faster than average download speeds in the rest of the country. Federal Communications Commission data shows that the Nanjemoy area and the region along the St. Mary’s County border from Hughesville down through Cobb Neck have internet speeds that are slower than what the FCC has designated as adequate.

A survey of Charles County residents conducted several years ago by another network provider reported that just over three-quarters of the survey’s respondents were not satisfied with the speed of their internet service, citing poor service and high prices as their biggest complaints.

The commissioners were spurred to develop a strategic broadband plan in part by the release of a report by a state rural broadband task force in January 2019 that encouraged county governments to consider seeking opportunities for public and private investment in broadband infrastructure. The county has tried at least twice in the recent past to bring high-speed internet to the county’s rural areas, but both times the arrangements fell through. The process got a boost from the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband, which gave the county a $50,000 grant that it used to hire Hovis’ firm, CTC Technology & Energy, to develop the plan.

The county initially approached Atlantic Broadband, which provides high-speed internet to St. Mary’s County and parts of King George County in Virginia, but the company responded that it was difficult to make a business case for investing in fiber optic network construction in rural Charles County. As TLR previously reported, last February Hovis encouraged the commissioners to consider partnering with ThinkBig instead.

“This is a monumental moment for our county,” said District 1 Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D), whose district includes Cobb Neck and who has made bringing rural broadband to the county one of his priorities as a commissioner. “I think our commitment to the residents to provide rural internet service and broadband is coming to fruition. It’s not a study that just keeps going on; we are going to break ground.”

The commissioners voted to approve a resolution authorizing them to execute the agreements during their final session before adjourning for their holiday break. As Bowling began to make a motion to approve the resolution, an eager Collins accidentally called for a vote on it before Bowling could actually spell out the full motion. This led to a lighthearted moment of procedural confusion that seemed in keeping with the congratulatory tone of the proceedings.

Seconded by District 2 Commissioner Thomasina Coates (D), whose district encompasses Nanjemoy, the vote to approve the resolution was unanimous.

“For the viewing audience: We got it,” Bowling said after the vote. “So there we go.”

Deputy county administrator Deborah Hall promised to update the commissioners in January on the project rollout. An agenda item briefly appeared on the commissioners’ schedule for the January 12 open session, but has since been removed.

illustration: Paul Lagasse/TLR