SNOW HILL – While there are some opportunities ahead, a consultant advised officials this week that bringing high speed internet to rural portions of Worcester County could be a decade-long effort.
Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, presented the results of a six-month broadband feasibility study to the Worcester County Commissioners on Tuesday.
“We recommend thinking of this as a long-term effort to chip away at the problem to make hopefully incremental but substantial progress over time and to think about this as a multi-year, possibly a decade-long effort, to partner with state, federal and private entities in order to comprehensively solve the problem in a long-term futureproof way,” Hovis said.
She said her company spent the past six months looking at Worcester County’s existing service and infrastructure to identify its needs.
“We did not analyze the possibility of the county becoming an internet service provider but with the understanding that the county, the state and most likely the federal government will be part of the solution in terms of making it economically viable for the private sector to fill those infrastructure gaps,” she said.
Hovis added that the lack of infrastructure was a problem all rural communities faced. She said installing infrastructure was only economically viable in places with population density, where costs were lower and revenues were higher.
“The private sector simply doesn’t build where there is not economic viability,” she said.
Here in Worcester County, CTC determined there were roughly 6,400 homes lacking broadband infrastructure. While they might have access to internet, it’s not at the speed the federal government considers broadband. CTC evaluated fiber and wireless as potential solutions in Worcester County. While fiber costs more, Hovis called it the “holy grail of communications infrastructure” and said it would last for decades. While wireless appears to be cheaper, she said it was best as an interim solution.
“At the end of seven to 10 years it probably would need wholesale replacement because it simply can’t keep pace with speeds and the needs of the market in the same way that a wired or a fiberoptic solution can,” she said.
As far as funding improvements of either variety, Hovis said there were a variety of state and federal grants and loans that would be available moving forward. She said Choptank Electric Cooperative could prove an ideal partner, as the company wants to bring broadband service to its customers.
“Choptank has made it clear it’s very interested in solving this problem in all nine of the counties on the Eastern Shore of Maryland,” she said. “We’ve had very positive engagement with them and feel there’s a real opportunity they could be a strong partner.”
A challenge in Worcester, however, is the fact that Bloosurf received federal funds to serve the county.
“There is an existing wireless provider here in the county whose presence and current status as the recipient of federal funds may preclude award of some of the federal funds to another entity,” Hovis said.
While Bloosurf received federal funding to bring high speed internet to the area, Hovis said there were concerns with the service it offered.
“If indeed this company is delivering at the level it says it is then the broadband challenges here in the county are not as bad as we think,” she said, “but we are concerned that that is not actually happening.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino said the county had a responsibility to make high speed internet service available to all of its residents.
“I’m a little concerned that Bloosurf has possibly cut us off or is holding us hostage,” he said. “What opportunities are available to us to break that hold?”
Hovis said the company’s service should be tested.
“There have been persistent concerns here in Worcester County about their performance,” she said.
She stressed that her company recommended engagement with Choptank as it aims to install fiber.
“If I had to choose between fixed wireless and fiber it’s not even a choice from an economic development standpoint,” she said. “That fiber is an asset that will last for decades. It’d be as good as anything that exists in San Francisco, Singapore, Seattle, Auckland, Beijing. You’d be competitive with anywhere in the world whereas fixed wireless could be a fine interim solution… It’s the difference between the Santa Fe Trail and an interstate highway. They’re just not the same thing.”
Bertino asked how the county should move forward, particularly in regard to its Bloosurf concerns.
“Years have slipped by already,” he said. “How do we maintain the forward momentum we’d like to see?”
Hovis said the county needed data on Bloosurf’s performance. She said that could be collected by wireless engineers.
Bertino made a motion to have staff bring the county a proposal for such testing as well as a plan to move forward at the commissioners’ next meeting. The motion passed unanimously.