DENTON — Choptank Electric Cooperative is seeking support from the residents and governments it serves as it prepares to pursue legislation that would allow it to ultimately deliver broadband internet access to its users.
Valerie Connelly, vice president of government affairs and public relations, and Matt Teffeau, manager of government affairs, spoke at the Caroline County commissioners’ meeting Tuesday, Sept. 10, about the initiative, and to ask for the commissioners to write a letter supporting the coming bill.
Connelly said the co-op’s new CEO, Mike Malandro, came to Choptank from a Virginia co-op that was able to deliver broadband to its members, and wants to bring that same service to the members Choptank serves in all nine Eastern Shore counties.
In the 2020 legislative session, a bill will seek to allow Choptank to become member-regulated, rather than being overseen by Maryland’s Public Service Commission.
The move will put Choptank in a position to pursue part of the $20 billion in federal money that will become available next summer to help companies — including co-ops — deliver broadband to rural areas, Connelly said.
In that case, Choptank could begin rolling out broadband access as soon as January 2021, she said, ideally to anyone who gets their electricity from the co-op.
Connelly said 36 percent of Marylanders do not have internet access meeting the current FCC standard, the majority of whom live on the Eastern Shore.
Access to high-speed internet is important for business development and education, Connelly said, and will make possible telemedicine services connecting rural residents to doctors and the use of certain kinds of technology that could help farmers make Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts.
All three commissioners supported the initiative, but expressed concerns about the chances of the bill passing.
“The problem is, when you mention taking regulation away from the state, you’re going to run into a brick wall,” said Vice President Dan Franklin.
Connelly said Choptank’s representatives are meeting with Public Service Commission members one-on-one, where they will point out all of Choptank’s members represent less than 3 percent of electric customers in the state.
“We’re a small co-op spending a lot of money and time to move through the same regulatory system as large for-profit electric companies,” Connelly said. “We hope they see we can better invest that to serve our customers.”
Choptank’s board of directors is democratically-elected by co-op members, Connelly said, and since it does not have shareholders expecting dividends, like a for-profit company, there is no incentive to raise rates unnecessarily.
Further, Connelly said, Choptank is not looking to come out entirely from state regulation, just on rate regulation and the affiliate rule.
President Larry Porter asked Connelly who might oppose the bill.
“The biggest hurdle will be the Public Service Commission and convincing them this is a fair thing to do,” Connelly said.
Of the 825 co-ops across the U.S., Connelly said, 83 percent are member-regulated.
Connelly said a draft of the bill will be pre-filed, so the bill will come up early in the 2020 session.
In addition to letters of support from the county governments, Connelly said, there will be opportunities for co-op members to support it.
Connelly said Choptank will look for stories from business owners, farmers, health care workers, retirees and students about what high-speed broadband internet access would mean.
“Let us know how it would benefit you and how we can make this work for you,” Connelly said.
Choptank was established in 1938 to bring electricity to the region when for-profit electric companies said it was not feasible, Connelly said.
Sara Visintainer, the commissioners’ chief of staff, said that same attitude is seen today in regards to expanding broadband access.
“It’s not good for our economy, education and health care,” Visintainer said. “I think what you guys are pursuing is very important.”