Driving around Talbot County you have likely passed a series of small white flags on the road that say “Proposed Fiber Optic” and large bright orange spools of cable and wondered, “What is going on”. This is all part of the great broadband rural expansion on the eastern shore.
Gas, water and electricity are considered essential services thus worthy of regulation and economic support. Knocking at the door of essential service status is broadband service, especially in rural areas. Broadband access ensures equal opportunities for remote learning and work, improves healthcare coverage through telemedicine innovations and encourages rural economic development. During COVID, we saw the digital divide up close as our neighbors, trapped in their homes, struggled without access to reliable, high speed, affordable broadband service. Broadband access is an essential tool rural communities need to stay competitive in an ever changing, technology driven world.
The white flags belong to Easton Utilities. After decades of living in a rural digital desert, we are experiencing a huge wave of fiber optic construction activity fueled by significant government funding in the form of grants, matching funds and loans, all focused on bringing high speed broadband to underserved rural communities. These funds come from the Department of Agriculture (Rural Utility Service), Maryland Rural Development Funds and County funds and have been awarded to familiar local utility companies Easton Utilities, through its Easton Velocity subsidiary, and Choptank Electric Cooperative, through its Choptank Fiber subsidiary.
Leading the charge in Talbot County is Easton Velocity with a $25 million “Connect Talbot” project to provide broadband access to about 3,600 households over a five-year period. Choptank Fiber has raised $50 million over the last three years and recently entered into a partnership with Bay Country Communications, which will add Dorchester and Talbot Counties to its Internet service area. An area that already includes Caroline, Cecil, Queen Anne’s, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester Counties. Choptank is prioritizing getting broadband service to its Cooperative membership over a ten-year period.
Supporting rural communities in this manner is not new. In 1932 only 10 percent of rural America was electrified. The Rural Electrification Administration was formed in 1935 under President Franklin Roosevelt as part of the New Deal and dramatically expanded electrical coverage to struggling farms and rural communities using low cost loans. Then Congressman Lyndon Johnson from rural Texas worked tirelessly with the REA to funnel financial support to rural electric cooperatives and bring electricity and all its benefits (refrigeration, electric light, etc) to rural America. It showed what government can do when the private industry fails to seize the moment.
The private sector in our current broadband drama is the cable industry. Cable operators with no viable competitor held all the cards when it came to providing broadband to rural America. Cable operators applied a simple calculation: if a community had less than 30 homes per mile it wasn’t worth the cost of building out with few homes generating limited revenue. A few wealthy rural enclaves could occasionally coax a cable operator to wire their area if enough residents picked up the construction tab and committed upfront to a service package. Making matters worse, satellite providers DirecTV and Dish did not have a competitive satellite-delivered broadband offering. More recently, Elon Musk’s highly anticipated Startlink service rollout has struggled. This left rural communities, especially, low-income communities, on the very dark side of the digital divide.
One of the first people to sound the alarm about the urgent need to provide reliable and fast, rural broadband access was Blair Levin in the 2010 Broadband Plan for America, which he authored for the FCC during the Obama administration. Thankfully, over the next decade, broadband access gradually became an appealing political issue, especially during an election cycle. Republicans and Democrats, along with President’s Trump, Biden and Maryland’s Governor, Larry Hogan, as well as state and local legislators, could easily support making sure rural voters were not left behind. This political support led to broad Federal, State and local funding. This funding was the real catalyst to get things moving since no local utility was willing to go it alone financially and needed government help to subsidize the capital-intensive fiber optic build-out. Yet again, government working with non-profit utilities intervened to help rural communities.
There are several grant restrictions relating to the broadband rollout. For example, Easton Velocity and Choptank Fiber cannot compete with an existing broadband provider. Each utility has detailed maps, which identify the specific homes allowed to receive their service in their designated service areas. Therefore, if you are a Breezeline broadband customer and you want to switch to Easton Velocity, which recently wired your street — it’s not going to happen. Broadband technology rollouts are challenging. The utilities will learn as they go. So far they seem to be doing a pretty good job. For more information visit the Easton Velocity and Choptank Fiber websites.
Hugh Panero, a tech & media entrepreneur was the founder & former CEO of XM Satellite Radio. He has worked with leading tech venture capital firms and was an adjunct media professor at George Washington University. He writes about Tech and Media for the Spy.