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The push for greater rural connectivity continues

A state task force recently made recommendations to improve internet, broadband, wireless and cellular services and accessibility to Maryland’s rural areas.

“Broadband and internet connectivity are the keys to economic success for our rural communities,” reads the executive summary of a Jan. 9 report to Senate and House leadership.

In May of last year, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed into law the Connecting Rural Maryland Act of 2017. The legislation established the Task Force on Rural Internet, Broadband, Wireless and Cellular Service.

The 22-member group, made up of elected members from the Maryland legislature, industry service providers and businesses, was tasked with making recommendation on how to improve connectivity in Southern and Western Maryland, the Eastern Shore, as well as Carroll, Frederick and Hartford counties.

“I was reluctant to go on the commission. I was concerned it was going to be more regulations, but it is very business focused,” said Lusby resident Andrew Roscoe, a member of the task force.

Roscoe, a partner in Consolidated Broadband Systems based out of Florida, was a gubernatorial appointment to the task force. He said Charlotte Davis, chair of the task force, convinced him to participate.

Roscoe found it most interesting that the group was open to small and mid-size business participation in the process.

After meeting a handful of times in the fall of last year, the group developed a report that detailed six recommendations geared to increase connectivity, to include: 1) implementing statutory and regulatory amendments to reduce obstacles and permitting challenges between private providers and state and local government; 2) conducting an inventory of all state and local government agencies’ assets, including cellular towers, water towers and other structures within the next year; and 3) considering moving the Office of Rural Broadband within the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development given its expertise and mission to support infrastructure and current funding programs.

The task force also stressed the need for further refinement of the scope of work for the Office of Rural Broadband and for the state’s access to updated mapping to better educate constituents and elected and appointed leaders, according to the report. The latter could be used to calculate the overall cost for universal service for broadband and should include a complete population and business density for underserved and unserved areas in each county.

The task force identified the need to partner with local governments, which can help identify and prioritize unserved and underserved areas with opportunities for input by the internet service providers.

Last Mile Broadband of Maryland LLC was awarded a Rural Maryland Council grant, in partnership with the Southern Maryland Minority Chamber of Commerce Foundation Inc., to conduct broadband demand surveys and high-level broadband network designs in Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s counties, according to a press release from the minority chamber. The chamber held a kickoff meeting Tuesday at the College of Southern Maryland to enlist the help of stakeholders in identifying two to four unserved or underserved areas in each county that would be viable candidates for the broadband demand survey and network engineering efforts.

Surveys are expected to start this month to help quantify the demand for potential public funding and private investments, according to the release. The chamber said it plans to seek out individual investors or companies who are interested in investing in the broadband expansion efforts.

“Those kinds of business models we have gotten to yet. We plan to extend into that next year,” Roscoe said, adding that they couldn’t “find a way the state could bend the cost curve.”

To do so, the group recommended the extension of its existence for an additional year and its mission expanded to continue working on uncompleted tasks.

If permitted, the group intends to focus on the development of a funding model for rural broadband deployment and the identification of potential funding sources beyond federal grants and financing options.