EASTON — The U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced on Friday, July 31, that Easton Utilities was awarded $13.1 million in grant funding to extend broadband to significant portions of Talbot County with insufficient service.

This investment is part of the $100 million in grant funding made available for the ReConnect Pilot Program through the CARES Act.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now — as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency,” Perdue said. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband.”

Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford attended the event at Triple Creek Winery in Cordova. He mentioned the recent events that have highlighted the need for rural broadband access.

“Our administration is working since day one — almost six years now — trying to bring broadband to the communities,” he said. “And the need has really been accentuated by the pandemic. Having the ability to live in this bucolic area and still be able to do the work and not have to move to urban centers is something we all want to see happen.”

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st, also attended and spoke about the importance of bringing broadband access to rural areas of the Eastern Shore.

“There has been a digital divide for years, and it has become accentuated recently,” Harris said. “Thank goodness we have an administration in Annapolis and an administration in Washington that realize that this is unfair. Ninety years ago we electrified the rural areas. Within the next few years, we’ll bring broadband everywhere.”

The total project will cost $17.5 million and will cover 122 square miles, reaching up to 3,447 households and 144 farms, plus several additional facilities located within the geographic footprint. The proven financial model will be comprised of investments from the USDA, Easton Utilities, the Talbot County Council, the State of Maryland and customers.

“The benefits of this project will be immeasurable to Talbot County and the positive impacts will last a lifetime,” said Hugh E. Grunden, president and CEO of Easton Utilities.

Easton Velocity, a service of Easton Utilities, will design, construct, own, operate and maintain the fiber-to-the-premises broadband infrastructure. The construction schedule with the location sequence and an estimated timeline is currently under development.

“It is essential to have a true partnership between all involved in the success of this project, including the end user,” said Talbot County Council President Corey W. Pack. “From start to finish, the entire application process was handled with precision and thorough attention to detail, with participation from many levels of all organizations involved.”

The five-year project called “Connect Talbot” will be implemented under the leadership of John J. Horner, Easton Utilities chief operating officer, and construction will begin in 2021. Horner was instrumental in the application process, coordinating and working with the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s Office of Rural Broadband, Talbot County, CTC Technology and Energy and CCI Systems.

In 2017, 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. Gov. Larry Hogan tasked the group to identify redundancies, gaps in service and funding options for increasing rural broadband in the state. Grunden was appointed to this Task Force where he shared knowledge with the team based on his experience leading a rural utility and telecommunications provider.

In March 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. On Dec. 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of the program, called “ReConnect,” including how the loans and grants will be awarded to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America.

In Round One of the ReConnect Program, USDA invested $744 million to bring high-speed broadband e-Connectivity to approximately 162,000 households, 22,000 rural small businesses and farms, and more than 500 health care centers, educational facilities and critical community facilities located in 34 states.

On April 20, USDA announced the department had received 172 applications for $1.57 billion in Round Two of the ReConnect Program. The second round enabled USDA to implement innovative new solutions to rural connectivity by leveraging financial options with partners and continue the success of the first round of funding. The application window for round two closed on April 15.

In a unique partnership, Easton Utilities, Talbot County and the State of Maryland submitted an application to secure a portion of this USDA grant funding for the Talbot County broadband project. Proof of financial and operational sustainability of the project was key to a successful grant application.

“We look forward to successfully executing this project to help drive economic prosperity and improve numerous quality of life issues including employment, healthcare, education and social connections,” Grunden said.

“I am so proud of our rural communities who have been working day in and day out, just like they always do, producing the food and fiber America depends on,” Perdue said. “We need them more than ever during these trying times, and expanding access to this critical infrastructure will help ensure rural America prospers for years to come.”

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.

Easton Velocity, a service of Easton Utilities, is committed to keeping the community connected and current with a variety of service offerings designed to meet the needs of both residential and commercial customers. Visit EastonVelocity.com/ConnectTalbot or call 410-690-4605 to learn more.

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