Broadband strategic plan rollout expected in new year

Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative spokesperson Tom Dennison briefs the Charles County Board of Commissioners on plans to allow internet service providers to use utility rights of way to provide broadband connectivity to rural areas. A state law that went into effect Oct. 1 allows the state’s electric cooperatives to approve such uses.

Charles County’s master plan for broadband coverage is expected to be unveiled early next year in time for consideration in the 2021 budget, county commissioners learned Tuesday.

Deputy County Administrator Deborah Hall told the commissioners that the county’s Broadband Task Force hopes to have its strategic plan completed by year’s end at the earliest.

“That’s a projected date,” Hall said. “We need some time to actually meet with the task force to talk about what we would like to recommend. We anticipate bringing it before the commissioners with our next update, with options, in January, February 2020 for the 2021 budget [process].”

CTC Technology & Energy of Kensington is in the process of preparing the strategic plan, which is being funded in part by a grant from the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband. Under the terms of the grant, work on the strategic plan must be completed no later than the end of January.

The strategic plan will assess the county’s current infrastructure and services, evaluate current and future broadband demand, provide cost estimates and identify options for funding and private partnership, and will lay out a business plan.

To help CTC clarify the demand for broadband, the county recently launched an online questionnaire to help identify areas that are not being reached by internet service.

The brief questionnaire asks residents for their address, whether it is a business or residential address, and whether they have an option to obtain internet service at their address.

Hall told the commissioners that so far over 1,200 responses have been received from just under 1,000 unique addresses across the county.

CTC has been meeting with county staff as well as representatives from SMECO, local cable providers and the Charles County Chamber of Commerce to collect information that will help it prepare the strategic plan. Additional meetings are planned through the end of this month.

Hall said that the broadband task force has spoken with cable provider Atlantic Broadband, which serves St. Mary’s County and King George, Va., to gauge its interest in providing broadband service to Charles County.

After surveying the county, “[the company’s general manager’s] initial response was not positive,” Hall said. “He does not see how he could possibly build a business case in Charles County, even if the county were to contribute some funding.”

Hall said that Atlantic Broadband subsequently expressed “a tad more interest” in serving the county when CTC informed them about additional state and federal funding that could be sought to help fund the installation of broadband infrastructure.

“If that turns out to be positive, then we’ll certainly be presenting it in ... the broadband strategic plan,” Hall said.

Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative spokesperson Tom Dennison, who recently joined the county’s broadband task force, told the commissioners that his company has formed an internal task force of its own to assess how it plans to make its resources available to internet service providers under the provisions of a new state law that went into effect on Oct. 1 that gives the state’s electric cooperatives the authority to approve the installation of fiber-optic “backbone” lines along their utility rights of way.

SMECO and Choptank Electric Cooperative have both installed fiber-optic cable along their utility rights of way to improve communications between substations and offices throughout the regions they serve. Under the new law, internet service providers are able to piggyback on those existing cables or install their own new ones.

Although several electric cooperatives in other states have pursued similar initiatives, Dennison said, electric cooperatives in Maryland operate in a regulated environment, which limits some of their options.

“SMECO is very interested in working with the county on this,” Dennison said. “There’s a strong sense that Charles County is front and center on this issue.”

The broadband task force consists of representatives from the county’s administrative, information technology, public works, planning, emergency services and economic development staff as well as two citizen representatives.

Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D), who moderated a town hall in January on residents’ concerns about broadband, said that unlike phone lines and electricity, broadband is not federally regulated.

“We’re in uncharted territory here,” Bowling said.

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