County Eyes $820K To Expand Broadband Efforts

County Eyes $820K To Expand Broadband Efforts
File photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – Officials agreed this week to designate a portion of Worcester County’s federal COVID-19 funding to Maryland Broadband Cooperative.

The Worcester County Commissioners voted unanimously this week to allocate $820,000 to Maryland Broadband Cooperative. The funding will help the cooperative upgrade its infrastructure to better serve the internet service providers that make up its membership.

“Thank you all for letting me come down here and tell you about what we do and I congratulate Worcester County on once again taking a leadership position on this issue,” said Drew Van Dopp, president and CEO of Maryland Broadband. “The success here today I think will resonate across the state of Maryland.”

The funding request from the cooperative is one of several county officials have received now that it has slightly more than $5 million — its first half of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds — to allocate. Van Dopp was invited to Tuesday’s meeting to explain the cooperative’s request for $820,000. He said the funding would help upgrade the cooperative’s equipment to ensure it could continue to serve its members. Talkie Communications and Choptank Fiber, both of which hope to provide broadband in Worcester County, are among its members.

“Our members are asking us to carry traffic into Worcester County at 200 to one the rate of what we did nine years ago,” he said. “A number of internet service providers are working to bring more services and faster services to Worcester County.”

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He said that both Talkie and Choptank would benefit demonstrably from the upgrades the cooperative wanted to complete.

“The last thing in the world we would want would be to run new service capabilities into everyone’s home and then have that traffic get bottled up on the middle mile network,” Van Dopp said.

When asked if the cooperative was seeking funding from other counties, Van Dopp said it would be eventually.

“We’ve had preliminary conversations with a handful,” he said. “However I just felt that with Worcester County this county was further down this road of discussing what to do with its ARPA funds.”

Commissioner Josh Nordstrom asked if the commissioners were putting the cart before the horse by funding Maryland Broadband before the companies working on extending broadband access had completed their efforts. He added that he would need significant justification to devote taxpayer dollars to a project.

Van Dopp said by supporting the cooperative, the county would be helping to future-proof the network. He added internet service providers depended on Maryland Broadband and that by expanding broadband access, the county would be increasing the value of its real estate.

Commissioner Jim Bunting said he’d seen a million-dollar property sale fall through because high-speed internet wasn’t available.

“I think this would be a very good use of the (ARPA) money,” he said.

Commissioner Chip Bertino noted the county was talking about spending grant funds, not taxpayer dollars.

“We are talking about using ARPA money that is a grant to the county from the federal government,” he said. “It’s not coming out of the county treasury.”

When asked if supporting Maryland Broadband’s request was a valid use of ARPA funds, Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young said broadband was one of the listed uses and the county would host a public hearing regarding its use of ARPA funds before actual expenditures took place.

“We have contacts at both the state as well as the U.S. Treasury that we confirm these things to make sure they’re eligible,” he said.

The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the cooperative’s request for $820,000.

Following the decision, the commissioners were also presented with information from Choptank Fiber. Like Talkie Communications, the organization is seeking financial support from the county as it works to bring broadband to Worcester County.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.