Lawmakers to fight for high-speed internet across Eastern Shore

Maryland’s Eastern Shore lawmakers discuss plans to push a bill that would allow Choptank Electric Cooperative to provide broadband internet service across the rural Shore. From left: Sen. Addie Eckardt, R-37-Mid-Shore; Del. Steve Arentz, R-36-Queen Anne’s; Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Talbot; and Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore.

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers are expected to introduce a bill this week that, if passed, will give Choptank Electric Cooperative the green light to roll out high-speed internet services to its rural customers across the Eastern Shore.

Choptank Electric President and CEO Mike Malandro said during a Friday, Jan. 24, meeting with the Eastern Shore delegation in Annapolis that the company is prepared to launch installation efforts simultaneously at select starting points across the Shore’s nine counties in 2021.

By 2022, Malandro said, he would expect the roll-out to be in “full swing,” with “50 to 100 people” potentially getting hooked up to the service each week.

Maryland has been working toward this goal during the past few years, and it appears legislation introduced during the 2020 session could seal the deal. In 2019, the state passed a law giving Choptank the authority to build and operate its own internet and communications facilities.

This year, with the anticipated passage of the Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act of 2020, Choptank will become member-regulated — setting the company up with the final tools it needs to extend what lawmakers say is “desperately needed” internet service to its customers.

Sarah Dahl, general counsel for Choptank Electric, said it’s been a struggle to get large internet service providers to build facilities on the Shore in the past because the population isn’t dense enough to make such deployment efforts economically feasible.

Since Choptank is a nonprofit company, Dahl said its motivation for working to provide the service “doesn’t stem from profit”; rather, it’s in response to member comments that they’re lacking reliable service options.

While most communities are connected to broadband internet through for-profit corporations, Choptank seeks to become one of more than 800 electric co-ops across the country that offers the service itself.

In a statement Monday, Jan. 27, Malandro said, “Distributing services that seem financially impossible to deliver to rural customers is what cooperatives were designed to do.”

Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, stressed the urgency of the bill, telling his fellow lawmakers, “Any one of us would not want to be in a community that does not have broadband at this point in time.”

“We have to take a step forward to say, ‘Something has to be done to get broadband into these rural areas,’” Hershey said.

Nearly 40% of Maryland is not connected with broadband internet, and rural pockets of the Eastern Shore make up a majority of that percentage, according to data on Choptank’s website.

Del. Sheree Sample-Hughes, D-37A-Dorchester, said she’s supporting the legislation to give Choptank the go-ahead on its broadband initiative because some of her constituents “still don’t have access” to internet services.

“Our way of living on the Shore should not compromise our opportunities,” Sample-Hughes said. “We are in a day and time where our citizens are expecting to have access. We should be there just as equitable as anyone else on the western shore.”

Choptank Electric, which has been in operation since 1938, serves more than 54,000 customers across nearly 6,300 miles of Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

“It took us 20 years to hook up electricity to all of our members,” Malandro said. “We think we can do this in half the time with existing resources. But the buildout will occur faster if we can secure grant and other funds along the way.”

Malandro said once the broadband rollout plans are approved, the company will host town hall meetings with its members so they will know when to expect the service in their area.

It was apparent during the Jan. 24 meeting that all the Eastern Shore delegation’s members were on board with the legislation. Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Talbot, offered his excitement that the “process is moving forward.”

And, echoing Mautz’s sentiments, Del. Wayne Hartman, R-38C-Wicomico, said he’s a “big fan” of this initiative.

Among Hartman’s top reasons for supporting the legislation was it “helps property values,” he said, adding there are “so many” other sectors on the Shore that will benefit from high-speed internet access.

Mautz said he’s anticipating more meetings and hearings during which the group of Eastern Shore legislators can continue to push for the law’s passage with input from lawmakers across the state.

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