SALISBURY – Choptank Electric representatives came before the county council this month to pitch plans for broadband infrastructure projects totaling $15 million.
The Wicomico County Council met with Choptank representatives Nov. 16 to discuss a $15 million infrastructure project that is expected to bring broadband to unserved areas of the county.
Valerie Connelly, vice president of government affairs, said the cooperative was looking to partner with Wicomico to submit a grant request to the Office of Statewide Broadband for funding.
“It’s too expensive to get to rural areas,” she said. “That’s why you have so many unserved locations. The cost per mile and the cost of infrastructure for such a low density is nearly impossible to do without grant funding.”
In 2020, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation allowing Choptank to become member regulated to start its new broadband business, Choptank Fiber. Using its existing fiber infrastructure, the company’s goal is to begin offering broadband service to its members and ultimately expand its services to others in the community.
As part of that effort, Choptank representatives told council members this week the cooperative had met with Acting County Executive John Psota and IT Director John Monar to present infrastructure projects that would bring broadband to 1,400 unserved homes in four of the five county districts.
While the projects would cost roughly $15 million, Connelly said Choptank was hoping to partner with Wicomico in applying for grant funding to bring the project to fruition.
The locations of the proposed infrastructure projects were not disclosed this week.
“The unique thing about this grant is that the cost share, or the matching funds, is tiered in this grant process,” she said. “We believe all the areas we are looking to serve in Wicomico County fall into the lowest tier for matching requirements, which is 10%. What we would propose is that Choptank would pay 5% and the county would pay 5%.”
Under that proposed formula, she said, Wicomico County would contribute $758,000 toward the project.
“This is unique because we’ve never seen a cost share or match this low,” she said.
Connelly noted the grant request was time sensitive, as applications had to be submitted to the Office of Statewide Broadband by Jan. 14 and it’s a competitive market.
“The concern is that now there is going to start to be redevelopment of infrastructure in more urban areas that is going to use a lot of the new money in future years,” she said. “So we are looking at this as one of the really unique opportunities to grab as much money as you can for rural infrastructure needs here in Wicomico County.”
Councilman John Cannon noted there were at least six internet service providers (ISPs) vying for the same broadband business. He questioned what made Choptank different.
“How would Choptank distinguish itself, separate itself, from the other ISPs?” he said.
Leroy Sverduk, vice president of engineering, noted Choptank was a nonprofit entity looking to bridge the gap in broadband services. He added the cooperative also had a warehouse of materials to begin projects immediately.
“That’s positioning us really well to hit the ground running,” he said.
Councilman Joe Holloway questioned if the cooperative was working with other counties on separate grant projects.
“I want to make sure the money the county puts up is to serve our county,” he said.
Connelly reassured the council that the county’s match would fund Wicomico projects.
“The thing about the cost share money is that it’s all reimbursable …,” she said. “We have those financial resources to do the entire build, then we get reimbursed from the state and reimbursed from the county after the work is done. You wouldn’t be putting money on the table up front.”
Councilwoman Nicole Acle thanked Choptank representatives for presenting information to the council.
“Just to be clear, this is an executive decision, to partner with someone for the grant,” she said. “… I know the county executive and Mr. Monar are working on this project, and we do have other ISP providers who have requested to come in for work sessions after this.”