Maryland BPW talks funding for rural broadband expansion

From top left, Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford, Comptroller Peter Franchot, Treasurer Nancy Kopp, Board of Public Works Secretary John Gontrum and Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Kenneth Holt discuss rural broadband expansion funding during a Wednesday, May 20, meeting.

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Board of Public Works has approved the state’s entering into grant agreements totaling $9.6 million to go toward broadband deployment in rural areas where access to high-speed internet service is slim.

During a meeting Wednesday, May 20, BPW members spoke in favor of rural broadband expansion efforts, but questioned whether funding for the projects could come from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Department of Housing and Community Development Secretary Kenneth Holt said, despite the coronavirus pandemic having further revealed internet connectivity gaps across the country, “there’s really not a lot of specific CARES money that’s dedicated to (expanding) broadband.”

The approach Maryland has decided to go with, Holt said, is to enter into grant agreements for general obligation bonds that require the grantee to contribute at least 50% of the total construction cost and a 100% equivalent of the total grant amount.

Of the total funding granted through the Maryland Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program, roughly $1.2 million will go to Charter Communication Holdings, LLC d.b.a. Spectrum Southeast, LLC; $2.2 million to Maryland Broadband Cooperative, Inc.; $2.9 million to ThinkBig Networks, LLC; and $1 million to QCOL, Inc.

The remaining $2.3 million will come from The Maryland Broadband Pilot Funding Program to go to Allegany, Baltimore, Cecil, Dorchester, Garrett, Kent and St. Mary’s counties, as well as the City of Crisfield.

Holt suggested that additional funding for the broadband projects could be appropriated locally by counties and school boards, which are receiving $187 million in CARES funding.

“There could be the ability for educators in those local jurisdictions to use some of that money, not just for educational purposes, but also for broadband expansion,” he said. “That’s going to be up to the education system how they want to appropriate that money.”

Talbot County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Kelly Griffith has expressed a desire to fill connectivity gaps in the county, with 15% of its students still reportedly lacking internet connection.

Griffith said her goal is to have every student connected to the internet by the end of June 2020. It’s unclear how she plans to do that or whether the Talbot Board of Education will seek some of the county’s federally allocated funds to go toward broadband expansion.

Holt said costs for the grantees will vary depending on whether the infrastructure does not already exist or if it’s already in place and the connectivity just requires expansion to accommodate a few dozen additional homes.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp said during the meeting that she supports broadband expansion “very strongly,” particularly “in these times of enforced distance.”

“I think it’s very exciting that we’re actually moving on this now,” Kopp said.

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