DENTON — In their annual meeting with state legislators before the Maryland General Assembly’s upcoming session, Caroline County commissioners urged the delegation’s support for a bill that will ultimately allow Choptank Electric Cooperative to supply high-speed broadband internet access to its members.
The commissioners met Tuesday, Oct. 15, with Sen. Stephen Hershey, R-36; Sen. Addie Eckardt, R-37; Del. Chris Adams, R-37B; Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-36; Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36; and Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B.
“The bottom line is (Caroline County) needs it,” said Commission President Larry Porter. “Choptank is the logical entity to provide it.”
The Denton-based electric cooperative was established in 1938 to provide electricity when larger for-profit companies determined it was not feasible in a rural area like the Eastern Shore.
Similarly, high-speed internet providers like Comcast and Verizon now say it is not cost effective to extend fiber to many areas. Choptank Electric now wants to do for high-speed internet access what it did for electricity.
The cooperative is submitting a bill that will allow it to become member-regulated, rather than being overseen by Maryland’s Public Service Commission.
Then it will apply for its share of $20 billion in federal grants next year intended to expand high-speed internet access in rural areas.
Porter said the county came close to losing one of its biggest employers, Choptank Transport, in Preston, over lack of high-speed internet.
He asked the delegation who might oppose the bill and allowing Choptank Electric to supply high-speed internet.
Hershey said he expects other providers to oppose it.
“But they’ve had the opportunity (to provide high-speed internet), and they haven’t done anything,” Hershey said.
Sara Visintainer, the commissioners’ chief of staff, said the Public Service Commission will probably worry about deregulation and what protections will be in place for consumers.
“Electric co-ops have a really good story to tell there, about serving underserved communities and being a really integral part of the community, being really responsive and being really responsible and having different motivations than private sector companies,” Visintainer said. “That story can be told effectively, but it’s going to be a heavy lift.”
Visintainer said county residents have looked into getting high-speed service from providers like Comcast, but were quoted prices from $30,000 to $130,000 to get fiber run to their house.
Meanwhile, Choptank Electric already has fiber running along most of its electric grid, which it uses to communicate between its own equipment.
“People know there’s fiber coming right to their house that Choptank owns, and they don’t understand why they can’t have a connection,” Visintainer said. “And we don’t have an answer for them.”
Caroline County Administrator Jeremy Goldman said Choptank Electric could technically apply for the grant as it is, but without member regulation, it will not be cost effective, even with the grant money.
“Without this bill, this doesn’t happen,” Goldman said.
Ghrist said Queen Anne’s and Kent counties also included support for the bill in their list of legislative session priorities, and he expects Talbot and Dorchester to do the same.
The commissioners also asked for the legislators’ support for two bond bill requests.
The first bond bill would build a new six-bed hospice house in the county, on land in Denton already owned by the county, to be operated by Compass Regional Hospice.
“This needs to happen,” said Vice President Dan Franklin.
Ghrist said it would be difficult to get a $1 million bond bill for a single project, and suggested also requesting funds from the state’s capital budget.
The other bond bill request would be for $375,000, to replace Colonel Richardson High School’s track.
Milton Nagel, assistant superintendent for administrative services for Caroline County Public Schools, said bond bills were requested during this year’s session for both county high school tracks’ replacements, but only one was awarded. North Caroline High School’s track was replaced first, over the summer.
Ghrist said the committee that awarded the bond bill for one track replacement this year said it would award the second one next year.
“Hopefully they follow through with that good-faith deal,” Ghrist said.