QUEEN ANNE — The bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by a divided Congress earlier this month and signed into law by President Joe Biden Nov. 15 could entice internet service providers to push broadband into the underserved rural areas of Queen Anne’s County.
Though these areas with low populations and spaced out residences have offered providers no guaranteed return on their investments, the new bill will recharge grant opportunities that make for financially secure expansions.
“Moving forward I see good things on the horizon,” said Megan DelGaudio, QA manager of information technology and the county liaison to the Broadband Advisory Council, which makes internet service recommendations to the commissioners. “I see this problem going away in the next few years, I’m hoping, as these things build out.”
While most of the county’s residents have access to different internet providers, sturdier broadband service – defined by the Federal Communications Commission as internet service with 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds — is inconsistently available in less populated areas.
A broadband strategic plan for the county compiled in June 2020 by the Columbia Telecommunications Corporation identified three categories of unserved locations.
The first involved homes without access to broadband infrastructure. The second was made up of homes on isolated, low-density roads in otherwise served areas. And the third consisted of homes in served areas that were so far from the road that providers, under county franchise requirements, were not obligated to connect them.
In total, the plan found an estimated 4,000 unserved premises throughout Queen Anne’s County.
Despite these years-old concerns, DelGaudio is optimistic that the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will help close some of the connectivity gaps throughout the county.
“I think we had a lot of years where [the future] didn’t look so great,” she said, adding that now, “I think it’s going to look pretty good.”
The mammoth bill, which disperses more than $1 trillion across the country, includes nearly $8 billion for different infrastructure projects throughout Maryland.
According to both the White House and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, at least $100 million of that funding will go towards expanding broadband services – making it available to at least 148,000 Marylanders in need.
Currently, counties and internet service providers can apply for one of two grants through the Maryland Office of Statewide Broadband, which, since 2018, has provided $3.1 million in grants towards projects based out of Queen Anne’s County.
Jurisdictions seeking to extend existing broadband service to unserved areas may apply for the Neighborhood Connect Broadband Grant Program; while the Connect Maryland Network Infrastructure Grant Program helps fund entirely new broadband networks.
Both programs are funded by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
Office of Statewide Broadband Director Kenrick Gordon said that the infrastructure bill will help “continue the work” his office does to expand stronger internet service, but also said adjustments will need to be made to the two programs to adapt to the language of the new bill.
“We’re going to have to make some changes to make sure we comply,” he said.
In addition to funding broadband infrastructure, the recently-passed bill will also make it easier for families to afford stronger internet service. Over 1 million people – roughly 17 percent of the state’s population – will be eligible for the Affordability Connectivity Benefit, an FCC program that helps low-income households afford internet access.
The bill’s enactment comes months after the peak of the COVID-19 lockdown, where millions of students and workers nationwide had to transition to online working environments.
“With COVID and the need to work remotely, kids needing to go to school remotely, it’s really opened everyone’s eyes to the need for broadband,” DelGaudio said. “I think everybody knows that it should be considered an item of infrastructure that is required, just like water, sewer, and electric.
“It really has become necessary.”