In the wake of two recent announcements about Maryland's efforts to connect rural citizens to online services, state leaders dissect the challenge of closing the urban-rural technological divide.
A winery that can reliably sell products online. A body shop that can communicate with an insurance company through the latest technology rather than via phone. A metal fabricator who can receive drawings electronically for end-user products. Parents who can work from home once a week, thus reducing rush-hour traffic on a single day.
Kenrick Gordon, director of the Maryland Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband, sees numerous ways that improved broadband access can transform life and work in rural areas. But sometimes framing this issue is as simple as tying it all back to education.
“If our children have to go to McDonald’s to do their homework, that’s not a good thing,” Gordon said.
States are grappling with the complicated task of bringing high-speed, consistent Internet service to citizens who live in more remote places. Maryland is a unique case in point. Late last month, two interesting announcements occurred: Gov. Larry Hogan revealed a five-year, $100 million plan to expand rural broadband, and a new FirstNet cell site in Talbot County received its own ribbon-cutting event.
Gordon said the dollar amount attached to the plan, which he developed, is an estimation of how much funding it will take to provide last-mile Internet services to unserved households in rural Maryland. About $9.7 million of that figure will be spent during the first year, which will set the tone for what’s to come in the state.
“What we plan to do is offer grants to help expand broadband into these unserved areas,” Gordon said. The grants will cover up to half of capital construction costs, and a minimum of a 100 percent match is required for the funding. Gordon added that the grants are intended to support larger infrastructure projects and will mostly involve work at the county level.
Other details, such as the grant application process, have not been fleshed out and will be addressed by a recently formed advisory committee.
The goal, however, is clear: Maryland aims to establish broadband service, with a performance requirement of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps, for 225,000 households. Gordon said this number does not represent the exact total of unserved households in rural Maryland, but it’s an estimate based on the Federal Communications Commission’s finding in the 2018 Broadband Deployment Report that “30.7 percent of Americans in rural areas … lack access to fixed terrestrial 25 Mbps/3 Mbps broadband.”
The plan’s activities will be similar from year to year, but Gordon mentioned efforts to increase general buy-in and sustainability, once again emphasizing education.
“As network construction starts, we plan to add adoption education and assistance to increase subscriber take rates and ensure our built networks are sustainable,” he said in an email to Government Technology. “We plan to offer adoption education in cooperation with local school districts and libraries to show the value of broadband access.”
An opinion column last week questioned Hogan’s commitment to rural broadband expansion. The article raises a common concern about how taxpayers’ dollars are spent, but part of the argument oddly judges Hogan’s intentions based on the 2011 One Maryland Broadband Network project (Hogan became governor in 2015). The author seems to conclude that the new plan is more of an old plan.
This perspective doesn’t appear to hold up based on the goals of the recently announced plan. Gordon pointed out that the One Maryland Broadband Network was more about middle-mile services, which involve interconnections between Internet service areas. The current plan specifically focuses on last-mile services, a term that refers to the last leg of a network that provides access to end-users.
Another important observation is that different rural areas have different priorities. With this fact in mind, Gordon’s office has given 11 grants for pilot projects in five counties and provided funding for feasibility studies in six counties. While the pilots will help answer specific questions about incentives and costs, the feasibility studies are for counties that need more assistance with identifying a pathway to better services.
“When I started this program, there were some counties who had a very clear idea of what their needs were,” he said. “Then there were others who understood that they had areas with needs, but they just weren’t sure how to provide services to them.”
The establishment of two FirstNet cell sites in rural Talbot County was announced around the same time that Hogan unveiled the broadband plan. Because these sites are part of a federal post-9/11 initiative, they’re more about ensuring that communication channels are open and prioritized for first responders.
Yet, the sites could very well affect a situation in which a citizen needs to report a problem. Clay Stamp, Talbot County’s assistant county manager and emergency services director, said the sites will have an impact on “general capacity that will benefit the community.”
“It’s not about just first responders talking,” Stamp said. “Equally important, perhaps more important, is the ability for people to contact 911. If we can’t get an emergency reported to us, we can’t respond to it.”
Stamp, who also serves as an emergency management adviser to Hogan, said the state’s broadband effort will definitely tie into his work.
“I feel it is very much part of a broader strategy to serve the public,” he said. “As time goes on, this connection will become clearer.”
From the emergency management side, Stamp understands how first responders think. The average police officer or paramedic is open to anything that can help them do their job. The overall feeling is that the first-responder community has been waiting for FirstNet sites — if not specifically, then abstractly.
“The beauty of it for us is many times urban and suburban centers often have their issues addressed first — and that’s because of population demand, it’s not without reason,” he said. “Rural settings are often the last to come up to speed on technology.”
FirstNet’s executive director of public safety advocacy Dave Buchanan said the two sites in Talbot County are part of about 650 markets across the county that now have deployed FirstNet-dedicated airwaves.
“The network didn’t plan on Day 2 to get the entire nation covered,” he said. “It was all about finding out who needed to be covered first.”
From 2013 to 2017, FirstNet collected information from public safety constituents across the country to craft a service plan for every state. Through this process, the organization collected about 2 million pieces of data related to public safety, including information like the locations of bridges and schools.
Every state plan developed by FirstNet was approved by a governor in 2017. According to Buchanan, this effort conquered the “first challenge of establishing the priorities,” citing widespread agreement among leaders.
“They [states] can opt out and build it themselves if they want,” he said. “None of them chose to do it. They all chose to accept the plan.”
Citizens, whether first responders or not, residing outside of urban and suburban areas are undoubtedly curious about when they will benefit from Internet technology as much as the rest of the country. As much as Maryland has worked to change the status quo in its rural areas, the players understand that persistence and patience are key.
Buchanan said the first question FirstNet often gets is when the system will be completed. His answer underscores how complex the entire endeavor of connecting rural America with the latest in communications technology.
“We’re five-quarters into a 20-quarter buildout,” he said. “Sometimes people wonder what the progress is. We’re still early in the process.”