County gets state grant for broadband strategic plan

Deputy County Administrator Deborah Hall asks a question of a colleague during her presentation to the Board of County Commissioners Tuesday morning on recent accomplishments of the county’s broadband task force.

The Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband has awarded a grant of up to $50,000 to Charles County to help pay for the preparation of the county’s broadband strategic plan, which may be completed within six months.

Evelyn Jacobson, the county’s chief of information technology, announced the grant award Tuesday during the weekly meeting of the board of county commissioners.

“The purpose of that plan is to really lay out the roadmap of how we’re going to deploy broadband to our rural areas,” Jacobson said. “The grant will pay for up to half of the cost of the development of our broadband strategic plan.”

The county’s broadband task force, which the commissioners tasked Jacobson and then-acting county administrator John H. Stevens with establishing in November, has contracted with CTC Technology & Energy of Kensington to prepare the strategic plan.

Deputy County Administrator Deborah Hall explained that the county will be able to “tap in and ride” an existing contract that CTC has.

According to the terms of the Rural Broadband Feasibility Grant, work on the strategic plan must begin before Aug. 1 and finish within six months.

Hall explained that the preparation of the strategic plan will involve assessing the county’s current infrastructure and services, evaluating current and future demand, preparing cost estimates, identifying funding options and private partnership options, and preparing a business plan that will identify the county’s investment and what it will recoup through fees.

The strategic plan will cost $94,000 to complete. Hall proposed funding the balance of the costs through a transfer from the county’s Cable Fund.

The county will likely also compete for additional funding through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that subsidizes construction costs and equipment purchases for rural broadband projects. Last month, task force member Michelle DeSoto attended a training workshop sponsored by the USDA to learn more about the grant’s project and program management requirements. DeSoto works for the county’s economic development department.

Late last month, USDA announced that it had begun accepting applications for its Rural E-Connectivity Loan and Grant Pilot Program, called ReConnect. The ReConnect program is offering up to $200 million in grants, $200 million in loan-grant combinations and $200 million in low-interest loans.

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 a single citizen representative. They have met several times since the formation of the task force and have formed several topical subcommittees, Hall said.

One of the first tasks completed by the broadband task force was a map of the county showing areas not served by high-speed fiber internet service by zip code. The map showed that Nanjemoy had the highest number of properties and parcels without broadband, at over 1,800. The Newburg area was second, with just under 1,200 properties and parcels not served. Third was Charlotte Hall, with over 1,000.

The task force is also in the process of launching an online questionnaire to help refine the map data. As of Tuesday morning just under 800 responses had already been received.

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.

A recent broadband demand survey conducted by Last Mile Broadband, LLC, found that of over 600 people who responded to the survey, 78% said they were not satisfied with the speed of their current internet service and three-quarters were not satisfied with their internet service provider.

The main complaints reported by survey respondents were high costs and poor service.

In January, around 100 residents turned out for a town hall meeting in Bel Alton hosted by Commissioner Gilbert Bowling III (D) to discuss the obstacles faced by ISPs and county governments alike in providing broadband services in rural areas.

A bill passed in this year’s General Assembly will allow ISPs to piggyback on rural electric cooperative right-of-ways and fiber-optic equipment to reach rural residents. Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative spokesperson Thomas Dennison told the Maryland Independent that SMECO is working on plans for making its resources available to ISPs when the law goes into effect on Oct. 1.

The broadband task force plans to update the commissioners on the strategic plan in September and provide them with financial estimates so that rollout costs can be included in the fiscal year 2021 budget.

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