CHESTERTOWN — No one will argue that Kent County needs faster, cheaper broadband Internet service. The question is how to get it and how long it will take.
A strategic plan crafted last year by the Upper Shore Regional Council places broadband infrastructure in the No. 1 spot. The USRC is an economic development agency made up of representatives of Cecil, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties.
The plan’s followup actions identify the obstacles a rural Maryland county faces: money (“explore USDA grants and loans”); location and technology (“conduct broadband survey”); and who will do the connecting (“assess feasible alternatives to completing the ‘last mile’ in the Upper Shore region”).
During 2013, the county’s Economic Development Advisory Board worked on an overall economic development plan. It says, “Our primary goal is to enhance the infrastructure needed to support new and existing businesses and institutions in Kent County – particularly access to affordable, robust and high capacity internet access.”
The plan says the county should “streamline our ability to assess quickly the cost and time required to provide high-speed, high-capacity internet access, when requested by new or existing businesses in Kent County, including home-based businesses.”
And in an Oct. 28 meeting with U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., the county commissioners told her that broadband is far more important to local and regional economic health than water or sewer systems.
In recent years, joint state and federal grants created a high-capacity fiber optic backbone for Eastern Shore counties. Work on the western shore extended fiber-optic service into rural areas there. The project, backed by Mikulski, combined a $115.2 million federal grant with $43.2 million in matching funds state and local governments.
On Oct. 15, Gov. Martin O’Malley and Mikulski visited Kent Island High School to mark the nominal completion of the OneMaryland Broadband Network.
“Completed” means the state government has connected “anchor institutions” to its fiber backbone. The anchors are typically schools, law enforcement agencies, state agencies, libraries, colleges and universities and local government offices.
Meanwhile, many Eastern Shore businesses and individuals have been left without the on-ramp to this info superhighway.
In much of rural Maryland, and especially so in Kent County, there’s nothing in place to cross the so-called “last mile” to a home or business. And there is no one to do it. Rural areas with a small customer base simply don’t attract private companies.
In an interview Monday, Nov. 25, Kent County Commissioner William Pickrum summed up the current situation.
“We’re trying to provide the infrastructure before companies we have leave ... or others even consider coming.”
Pickrum, who is USRC chairman, said the county can’t move forward economically without Internet connections as good as those in urban areas.
“I don’t mince my words. I’m very disappointed in the state of Maryland,” which has not helped rural areas, he said. He said it appears the Upper Shore region will have to look to the federal government for money.
For example, when OneMaryland ran its fiber lines, “they left out Millington,” Pickrum said. “That’s a real issue.”
The fiber backbone crosses the Chester River into Chestertown. A branch runs to Rock Hall, where the school district office is. A stub runs east as far as the county public works building and State Highway Administration shop on state Route 291.
The line continues along state Route 213, through Galena and into Cecil County. Along with Millington, Betterton is miles from the backbone. Even in Kennedyville and Galena, where the cable is within a few yards of homes and businesses, no one can connect to it.
Pickrum said, “We are trying to encourage installation of the last mile, working with some of our local providers like Atlantic Broadband and WaveVision, to get service for our communities, our hamlets, where clusters of people are.”
Kent County’s existing Internet Service Providers – ISPs – are Atlantic Broadband, Verizon and Bay Broadband.
Canadian company Cogeco Cable Inc. owns Atlantic Broadband, while Texas-based WaveVision owns Bay Broadband.
Comcast is in the Galena area, but does not offer Internet to its customers there.
“We’re encouraging commercial providers to provide a point of service,” Pickrum said, “in the Galena area and in the Millington area. But these are not local providers, they are outside the county or state or country.”
The nonprofit Maryland Broadband Cooperative, based in Salisbury, worked on installing the fiber backbone. It is nominally independent, but its charter does not allow it to get into service to home or business customers. It is a wholesaler of high-capacity fiber-optic lines to its members and to ISPs.