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Forum Tackles Rural Broadband Expansion in Maryland

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — In many areas of the Eastern Shore, broadband is just not available.

“It’s frustrating — we learned that the broadband trunk line goes right down the Eastern Shore for the hospitals, but there’s no access for the little towns like Berlin. We want to offer our businesses reliable WiFi,” said Ann McGinnis Hillyer, CEO of StateVentures LLC, the tourism consultant for Berlin, Maryland.

The Maryland General Assembly established the Task Force on Rural Internet, Broadband, Wireless and Cellular Service to help address broadband inequities on the Eastern Shore and in other rural areas.

Rural Maryland Council and USDA Rural Development put on a rural broadband forum in Annapolis to gather feedback on ways to improve broadband access in rural areas.

For McGinnis Hillyer, the lack of reliable broadband in Berlin is bad for business.

“Berlin’s not competitive for business or tourism without WiFi. We want to attract businesses with the higher-paying jobs, more jobs, a way for folks living in Berlin to work anywhere, in their homes, downtown, in our city park,” she said.

Gov. Larry Hogan has tasked the group to come up with a report by November on redundancies, gaps in service and funding options for increasing rural broadband in the state.

Keith Adams, USDA Rural Development, told the 80-plus attendees to apply now for rural broadband access loans to help develop broadband access in underserved areas.

The window for applications is Sept. 1-30. He said that both nonprofit for for-profit entities can apply for government loans, including limited liability companies, cooperatives or mutual organizations, state or local governments, and even corporations. Individuals and people involved in partnerships are not eligible.

According to the USDA website, the loans are broad-reaching and can be used to “provide funds for the costs of construction, improvement, or acquisition of facilities and equipment needed to provide service at the broadband lending speed in eligible rural areas.”

The government’s Broadband Initiative Program has $23.6 million available for distance learning and telemedicine programs alone, he said.

But Adams cautioned interested parties to provide accurate and complete information on their application. Once the loan applications are under consideration, he said the agency cannot ask for clarification or additional information.

The forum also included breakout sessions on enhancing public-private partnerships to encourage broadband penetrations, federal funding resources and grants through the Connect America Fund Phase II.

Steve Pennington, managing director of business and industry sector development at the Maryland Department of Commerce, said the state is taking a “multipronged approach” to increasing broadband connectivity.

“In a series of meetings, we’re bringing together stakeholders, cable companies, providers, commerce people. … We are trying to ease, to consolidate permitting,” he said. “We’ve met with rural counties to identify the underserved areas.”

State Del. Mark Fisher, R-Calvert, moderated a breakout session on successful public-private partnership models for bringing broadband to rural areas.

State Del. Johnny Mautz, R-Easton, introduced the president of the New York State Telecommunications Association, Robert Puckett, who talked about New York’s experience implementing the state’s “Broadband for All” initiative. He outlined the funding and phases of the project, pointing out the differences between the circumstances in New York and Maryland.

New York state is larger in size and more populated than Maryland, but also noteworthy is population density. While New York averages 416 people per square mile, Maryland’s density is 596 residents per square mile.

Puckett noted that most of New York state is rural and sparsely populated, while Maryland has sprawling urban and suburban regions.

He also said that when New York began its “Broadband for All” initiative, the state had 40 incumbent telecom franchises, some with 100-plus years in their communities, while Maryland has one incumbent, an independent phone company with more than 100 years of rural service, Armstrong Phone Co.

Important to New York’s success, Puckett said, was when the Federal Communicaitons Commission, through its Connect America Fund, offered Verizon a grant to provide broadband to underserved areas of the state, they refused it. But Gov. Andrew Cuomo accepted the funds, $170 million over six years, and made it available to companies who wanted to undertake sections of broadband installation and upgrades.

Maryland did not have that opportunity.

A question and answer period closed the day.

Walt Bryan, a commercial land broker on the Eastern Shore, said reliable and full broadband coverage is essential to grow the economy and lure businesses to the shore.

“I do as much business in my second bedroom as some folks do at their big offices in the cities,” Bryan said.