EASTON — Internet expansion in Talbot County should be a model for all rural communities throughout the state and country struggling with reliable broadband speeds, officials agreed at a Community Development Network of Maryland meeting Oct. 6.
Representatives at the meeting pointed to Easton Utilities, which was awarded a $13 million federal grant earlier this year for its Connect Talbot project. That project will expand internet service to 3,447 homes and 144 farms in the county by 2025.
Joanne Hovis, the president of engineering firm CTC Technology & Energy, applauded the Connect Talbot project at the virtual meeting. Hovis specializes in broadband technology and said John Horner, the chief technology officer at Easton Utilities, has set a standard for rural communities.
“What he has accomplished in Talbot County should be a model for the rest of the state,” she said. “We don’t have broadband solutions at the local level, so this multiyear cycle of increased services is helping to solve broadband issues.”
The Community Development Network, an organization comprised of nonprofits and businesses in Maryland, including 15 on the Eastern Shore, held the meeting to discuss internet connectivity issues in rural areas across the state.
While reliable internet has always been an issue in rural communities, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the need to address it. Many schools, jobs and services are transitioning to a virtual format, leaving rural residents with unreliable internet connection out of the loop.
CDN reported at the meeting that more than 60 million Americans lack broadband connections at reliable speeds, most of them in rural communities such as the Eastern Shore.
About half of Talbot County is currently considered “underserved,” according to a map provided by Easton Utilities at the meeting. A majority of those locations will be served by 2025 through Easton Utilities’ Connect Talbot program.
Horner said the problem in rural areas has always been the cost of service providers to expand into places with few homes, which means fewer customers.
“The cost to install (broadband) fiber — say in Easton — is about $40,000 a linear mile,” said Horner. “In order to make it feasible for a provider, you need about 40 customers available per linear mile.”
Horner said he was “trying to brainstorm and collaborate” on solving that dilemma, and he then partnered with the county and the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband, a task force created to examine internet issues in the state.
“With additional funding opportunities at the state level, this has become an excellent partnership,” Horner said.
Kennick Gordon, a representative from the task force, said the state has increased the budget to tackle rural dead zones. It rose from $2 million in 2019 to more than $11 million in 2021.
These renewed efforts are coming at a dire time for schools, which are primarily transitioning online or to a hybrid model.
Anna Read, a research officer from Pew Charitable Trusts, said roughly 16 million students nationally lack good internet access, and 300,000 to 400,000 teachers do not have the ability to reliably teach online from home. Some students are missing online classes and others are dropping out of high school because they do not have internet access at home.
This is a pressing need, Read said.
“It’s a very significant challenge across the U.S.,” she said, adding reliable internet connectivity “is relevant to our current time and being able to participate or access services and jobs.”