Choptank's rural broadband bill gets Hogan's approval

Gov. Larry Hogan has ratified House bill 999, allowing Choptank Electric Cooperative to begin the process of becoming member regulated and connecting its rural Eastern Shore customers to high-speed internet. Pictured: Choptank President and CEO Mike Malandro, left, Choptank General Counsel Sarah Dahl, center, and Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, D-37A-Dorchester, right, testify before the House Economic Matters Committee on “The Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act of 2020” Thursday, March 5, in Annapolis.

ANNAPOLIS — Choptank Electric Cooperative has gotten the go-ahead from Gov. Larry Hogan to begin the process of becoming member regulated, which will allow the cooperative to extend high-speed internet service to its customers across the Eastern Shore.

In a sweep of bill vetoes and approvals Thursday, May 7, Hogan affirmed House bill 999, known as “The Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act of 2020,” authorizing Choptank’s members to vote the cooperative out from under the Public Service Commission’s regulatory control.

Choptank has said becoming member regulated will remove some of the economic barriers that have prevented it and other providers from connecting residents in rural pockets of the Shore to high-speed internet.

Valerie Connelly, Choptank’s vice president of government affairs and public relations, said in an interview Tuesday, May 12, ballots will be mailed out to all Choptank members beginning Friday, May 15.

Members will have until Thursday, Aug. 13, to cast their vote by mail or online either for or against the cooperative’s de-regulation. The votes will be announced Aug. 13 during the cooperative’s special meeting, which will immediately follow its scheduled annual meeting.

Of the company’s 46,000 eligible voters, roughly 7,000 must vote on the matter, with a majority in favor of the change, in order for Choptank’s plan to move forward.

Connelly said if Choptank’s members approve of its de-regulation, the cooperative will seek federal funding for the project, develop deployment maps and begin hooking its customers up to broadband in Spring of 2021.

Choptank President and CEO Mike Malandro has said the company will launch installation efforts simultaneously across the Shore’s nine counties, with 50 to 100 customers getting connected to the internet service each week.

Hogan’s approval of Choptank’s rural broadband plan comes nearly two months after the bill passed unanimously through both chambers of Maryland’s General Assembly in the final days of the 2020 legislative session, which adjourned early as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the state.

Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, the bill’s sponsor on the Senate side, said he “worked to death” to push the bill through as the clock ran out.

Hershey cited virus-fueled school closures, teleworking mandates, telemedicine needs and isolation directives as having highlighted the importance of making high-speed internet accessible to all Maryland residents.

While Choptank won’t be able to help its unserved and underserved customers connect to the internet as the state remains on lockdown this year, Connnelly said it’s important for the cooperative’s members to participate in the de-regulation vote if they want Choptank to be able to begin rolling out the service by next year.

“I’ve probably been getting five or six calls a day from members who are just asking, ‘When are we going to get broadband?’” she said. “They’re desperate because of the times we’re in and what they’re struggling with at home. We just want to make sure our members recognize that it’s important to cast a vote and not assume that it’s a done deal.”

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