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Maryland Senator Discusses Broadband With Residents

Federal infrastructure legislation will provide more than $7 billion to Maryland over the next five years for improving roads and bridges, public transit and broadband access, among other things.

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(TNS) — Accessing the internet has been a constant battle at Micah Miller's house in Sabillasville, one of the communities in Frederick County where a reliable connection is scarce.

It's been difficult to complete work at home, Miller said, and his wife's been unable to take on a remote job that would allow her to be home for the couple's three children. The lack of internet access has been hard on Miller's children too, who during the start of the pandemic were unable to complete online school at home. At times, they had to work in a car parked outside Sabillasville Elementary School for wireless internet.

"I was actually looking at places to move," Miller said. "I'm not in a position to do it, but that's how frustrating it gets."

Miller's home is one of roughly 3,000 in the county without access to broadband, the wireless internet access needed for working at home or connecting children to reliable internet for online schooling.

Lawmakers have pledged to use state and federal funds to bring high speed internet to those in the county who need it. On Thursday, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D- Maryland) visited the Thurmont Regional Library, a short drive south of Sabillasville, for a roundtable to reaffirm his commitment to improve local broadband access.

Thursday marked the 101st day since Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the largest investment in American infrastructure in more than half a century. The legislation will provide more than $7 billion to Maryland over the next five years for improving roads and bridges, public transit and broadband access, among other things.

Joining the senator and a handful of county residents, including Miller, were County Executive Jan Gardner (D), Thurmont Mayor John Kinnaird and leaders from the county's public schools and libraries systems. All those present underscored the importance of having access to broadband, particularly for school children.

"I firmly believe that access to broadband is to the 21st century what electricity was to the 20th century," Van Hollen said during the roundtable.

Officials are still spending the county's latest allocation of federal COVID assistance, $25 million from the American Rescue Plan Act — $2 million of which will go to expanding broadband in unserved and underserved areas of the county, including areas around Sabillasville and Thurmont.

In nearby Rocky Ridge, a project with county and state funding could bring broadband to 135 homes by the end of this year, county officials said.

The Rocky Ridge project is the first expansion in broadband access in Frederick County since a 2020 study assessed where needs persist and how best to plug in the disconnected.

The study identified Rocky Ridge as an "unserved" area, meaning it lacks nearby infrastructure for broadband to reach homes.

Other unserved areas included locations north of Catoctin Mountain Park, the southern border of the county — including, and just east of, Tuscarora — and the northeastern border of the county, from around Woodsboro up through Emmitsburg. It will cost roughly $21 million to bring broadband to the three regions, according to the study.

The county plans to create an office of broadband that will oversee how the county distributes federal and state funding to private companies that will bring broadband to the communities that need it most, said David Maginnis, chief information officer for the county's Interagency Information Technology Division.

Leaders from the county's public libraries and school systems on Thursday shared stories of students like the Millers who had to leave home for reliable internet access. They came to Thurmont Regional Library and local schools, but were unable to enter because of COVID restrictions. So these students had to sit in cars or on the ground, close enough to connect to the wireless connection hooked up inside.

Van Hollen mentioned during the roundtable that $2.5 million of the county's ARPA allocation went to the public school system and the YMCA of Frederick County to help connect students to reliable internet. This funding also helped local libraries strengthen their wireless internet connections.

Despite these improvements, though, the need for broadband connection for thousands of county residents persists.

"We need it really bad," Miller said during the roundtable.

© 2022 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.