Federal, State Funds Boost Shore High-Speed Initiative

BERLIN – The ongoing effort to connect Worcester County and much of the Eastern Shore to seamless, high-speed Internet access got a major shot in the arm this week when a pair of major injections of state and federal funding were announced from two separate sources.

On Monday, Maryland Senators Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin announced they had secured $3.2 million in federal funding for the Maryland Broadband Cooperative from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant. Much of the funding will stay right here in Worcester County to connect the dots from Pocomoke to Snow Hill to Berlin and into Selbyville, Del. before heading west to Salisbury to connect with another phase of the project.

“I have pledged to do everything I can to keep the Eastern Shore competitive,” said Mikulski. “Bringing broadband to the shore means economic development, job growth and innovation, whether you are a small business, a school, a major employer or a NASA center. I am proud to announce this funding and I will continue to work with Team Maryland to build a broadband superhighway to the shore.”

Later that same day, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who was in Salisbury for a cabinet meeting on the shore before heading to Ocean City for the annual Maryland Municipal League (MML) Convention, announced an advance of $2 million in state funding to the Rural Broadband Initiative to continue the installation of high-speed Internet cable from Salisbury to the Bay Bridge, which is the second phase of the multi-faceted effort to connect the entire Eastern Shore. The first phase, a connection from NASA’s Wallops Island Flight Facility to Salisbury, was completed earlier this month.

“This $2 million will ensure that installation of the Rural Broadband Initiative will continue without interruption and ahead of schedule,” said O’Malley. “Broadband access will improve the lives of all Marylanders on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland, and give our rural businesses the tools they need to compete in a global marketplace.”

Getting the $3.2 million in federal EDA grants for the continued broadband was considered a bit of a long shot, according to County Commissioner Virgil Shockley, who shepherded the effort to bring high-speed Internet service to the Lower Shore on the local level. Mikulski was able to secure a $2 million down payment on broadband construction on the shore in the 2006 federal budget, but the effort to gain an additional $4 million this year for the next phase of the information superhighway appeared to die when the spending bill was not brought up for a final vote at the close of the 109th Congress.

However, Mikulski, with the help of Cardin, was able to push for the funding and secure an additional $3.2 in federal funding this year, even after Congress closed its session. The Maryland Broadband Cooperative will use the federal funding to install a fiber optic broadband network to serve high technology business on the shore, which, it is believed, will create 1,000 new jobs and generate $117 million in private investment.

On the state side, the $2 million advance announced by O’Malley on Monday is a continuation of a larger $6 million commitment from Maryland for the project. The state had already committed $4 million to the project and Monday’s announcement moves up the expenditure of the additional $2 million.

Shockley said this week the back-to-back announcements put the effort to connect the entire Eastern Shore back on the fast track and without interruption. He likened the effort to build the information superhighway to the construction of a regular highway in that the project only keeps moving forward as long as the funding keeps flowing.

Shockley was clearly pleased with the state and federal funding announcements this week.

“This is a huge feather in our cap,” he said. “This will create business opportunities as well as educational opportunities. Just a couple of years ago, what were the chances of getting high-speed fiber in places like Snow Hill and Berlin and Pocomoke?”

The effort to bring high-speed Internet access to every corner of the Eastern Shore began as a concept several years ago, but didn’t really get rolling on the ground until around 2003 when the Maryland Broadband Cooperative was formed. Shockley said he was somewhat surprised at the pace of the project, given the usually slow machinations of the government.

“We should be hot-wired by Christmas,” he said. “I’ve lived this dream for four years. It’s been one of the things that make up for some of the headaches of being a commissioner.”

The commissioner said the impact on the citizens of the shore should go beyond the economic and educational benefits.

“It’s really a quality of life issue,” he said. “This will improve the quality of life here and improve the economy and education. I’m tired of not having decent jobs for our kids and I’m tired of our brightest and best moving away. For me, it’s a little bit selfish. I don’t want to drive three hours to see my grandkids.”