EASTON — Following a request from Easton Utilities CEO Hugh Grunden, the Talbot County Council unanimously approved allocating $1.75 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding toward the company’s efforts to secure broadband access for 100% of the county’s unserved areas.
During Tuesday evening’s council meeting, Grunden presented an update on the Connect Talbot project’s progress so far, along with outlining the remaining gap in funding needed to fully fund the project.
Connect Talbot is a five-year, $25 million project created by Easton Utilities that aims to bring broadband infrastructure and access to 100% of Talbot County’s unserved areas. The project will cover 122 square miles and reach over 3,400 households and 144 farms, along with other community facilities.
The original scope of the project estimated a $17.5 million price tag for the project, but has since risen due to the project’s footprint and addition of grant funding to add more unserved locations to the coverage area, said Kelly Simonsen, Easton Utilities’ marketing and communications manager.
Overall, the company’s efforts to secure broadband access for the rural and unserved areas of Talbot County are “well underway,” Grunden said.
Including the county’s initial commitment, several grants secured by Easton Utilities and a $13.1 million grant from the USDA ReConnect program, the Connect Talbot project has already received $20 million total — an amount that will allow service to reach 92% of the currently unserved locations, or around 3,330 parcels, over the next four years, he said.
The $13.1 million grant from the USDA ReConnect program was awarded in August 2020. Easton Utilities finished the design for that funded portion of the project last year and began building parts of the new system as allowed by some contracts within the grant.
The areas covered by this portion of the project are “quick win” areas because they’re closer to the company’s existing system, Grunden said. The early work has provided access to about 100 parcels, and around 40 customers are provisionally connected, he added.
Easton Utilities also received final approval from the USDA for the ReConnect contract about two weeks ago, he said, mentioning that contractors are actively working in the county beginning to install the “backbone” of the new fiber system. The infrastructure being installed now also has the capacity to serve increased needs over time.
To cover the remaining 8% of the unserved areas, which stretches over western areas of the county, Easton Utilities also applied for a $3.8 million grant through the Maryland Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program in January. While the company has not received a response from the grant program yet, they’re continuing to pursue other funding sources to cover more areas.
The $3.8 million grant request is not part of the $25 million project cost.
As of March 22, the only grant-funded program being worked on in the county is USDA, Grunden said, and the only program requiring a customer contribution is the ReConnect program, which is the largest part of the project.
This share of funding from customers would aid with construction efforts in building the foundational broadband infrastructure and lengthy or difficult service drops, such as where fiber lines would need to run along long farm lanes and driveways, he said.
However, Easton Utilities has been unable to find funding to alleviate the customer contributions requirement, which prompted Grunden to ask the council for assistance.
“We’re requesting the county council to provide $1.75 million of their American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to close this gap for the customers that are going to benefit from this project,” he said.
Combined with the anticipated state broadband block grant of $1 million and an additional $1.25 million from Easton Utilities, the $1.75 million contribution from the council using ARPA funds would eliminate a barrier to entry for customers and relieve the burden of paying that contribution, Grunden said.
Time is of the essence with acquiring the requested funding, he added. Easton Utilities is preparing to invite customers to sign up for service and want to be able to tell customers upfront if they’ll have to pay that customer contribution cost.
Later in the meeting, a presentation on other ARPA funding allocation requests prompted council member Laura Price to ask if the council needed to take action tonight on approving the funding. Council Vice President Pete Lesher recommended moving on the approval, and Price seconded his motion.
The council unanimously voted to approve allocating the $1.75 million in ARPA funding for the broadband project, along with other ARPA funding for the Chesapeake Center and equipment for the county’s fire companies.
More details on the allocation will come following the council’s next budget meeting, said County Manager Clay Stamp.