Consultants from CTC Technology and Energy briefed commissioners Tuesday on the status of their work as it pertains to developing the county’s broadband strategic plan, having discovered through research that a substantial portion of rural areas do not have access to broadband and that 5G wireless will not address this problem.

During her presentation, Joanne Hovis, president of CTC, a Kensington firm that specializes in networking projects for public sector and nonprofit clients, gave an update on efforts to identify and understand gaps in broadband service; recommended technical approaches to providing broadband service and quantified the cost of each; and talked about strategies to maximize the use of federal and state funding.

Hovis, who was accompanied by information technology chief Evelyn Jacobson and deputy county administrator Debra Hall, said economics do not favor rural development. Even though 5G wireless technology is capable of delivering broadband speeds, it requires close proximity to users and deployment is likely only in densely populated areas, at least in near term, according to the presentation.

“The work that we were commissioned to do by the county was to understand where the county is currently with regards to broadband,” Hovis said. “Now that we know where the gaps are, what is it going to take to fill those gaps under a range of different technical scenarios.”

The methodology that CTC used for determining unserved areas, according to Hovis, entailed analyzing service availability data provided by the county to include GIS maps, survey results, citizen-reported service gaps and infrastructure analysis, as well as conducting extensive desk and field surveys which included inspecting more than 200 miles of roadway in representative portions of Charles County.

“For the most part, there’s almost no county in the United States that has ubiquitous broadband,” said Hovis. “Infrastructure in low-density areas is challenging. At its core, we’re talking about building stuff in roads, on towers, on poles, crossing highways, crossing train tracks [and] crossing rivers. Like all kinds of infrastructure, it is costly and difficult to do.”

In addition, although the federal government puts a lot of money into broadband technology, it’s going mostly to private-sector companies that are capable of producing bigger profits. The core issue in Charles County, like everywhere else throughout the country, is that “low-density areas are struggling with broadband service issues,” Hovis said.

“We can’t change that economic picture,” she said. “This is why we have federal support mechanisms.”

Fortunately, Hovis said unserved areas are eligible for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Grant and Loan Program, state rural broadband programs and a rural digital opportunity fund provided by the Federal Communications Commission, which is anticipated in 2020.

USDA’s program, which has awards worth between $3 million and $10 million, prioritizes experienced applicants and would require an internet service provider, or ISP, partner. Hovis said local and state support is important and that given bipartisan support, it is expected that Congress will continue annual appropriations.

As for Maryland’s rural broadband programs, Hovis said modest-sized pilot program grants up to $200,000 for 50% of construction costs, with a 100% match required, are available now.

Local jurisdictions would have to partner with an ISP partner, and there is even an opportunity to extend broadband service to unserved households. A larger-scale grant, however, will be announced within a few months.

“In the end, it’s how we’re going to get robust broadband networks built in rural communities. We’re going to need the federal government to be there with us as a partner,” said Hovis. “The solution here is almost certainly going to be a funding solution as opposed to some kind of technology innovation. … This is still infrastructure at its core and building infrastructure is costly.”

CTC’s interim recommendation is to work with Comcast and other potential private partners on immediate strategies to leverage state funding; work with and encourage SMECO to make a determination about whether it plans to get involved in broadband following new legislation last year; and consider a robust competitive process or other approach to select partners to leverage ReConnect and RDOF funding in 2020 and 2021, if SMECO does not go forward.

“We think SMECO is remarkably well positioned to compete for [it],” Hovis said. “This would be a no-risk and really robust solution to some of your challenges here.”

“There are so many different things coming from this that impact everybody’s every day lives,” Commissioner Gilbert “B.J.” Bowling III (D) said. “It seems like the ball is in the court of SMECO right now, where we need them to let us know what they’re going to do.”

Bowling suggested sending a letter to SMECO’s board of directors to reiterate the importance of this effort and to consider in the upcoming budget cycle how commissioners could implement a tax credit system for rural area residents who don’t have internet access.

“I think the appropriate process would be if the letter is drafted and then presented next week for us to review,” Commissioner Amanda Stewart (D) said, “and then to accept.”

Hall said she thinks Hovis is the best person to draft the letter, given her expertise and overall input regarding the county’s broadband feasibility study.

“This has been a priority issue for the board,” Commissioners’ President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said. “Either way, I think we can begin by having a letter drafted and then approving it.”

“We don’t want to miss that opportunity as a county because that would provide us the infrastructure that we need to really solve this problem,” said Hall. “If SMECO doesn’t assist, we can solve the problem but in small increments versus a much broader and cost-effective solution for our residents.”

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