SNOW HILL – Desire for high-speed internet highlighted a public hearing regarding Worcester County’s use of federal relief funds.
Citizens told the Worcester County Commissioners last week they wanted the county to use its American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to help expand access to broadband in the county’s rural areas. While several questioned the county’s partnership with Talkie Communications, officials said they were willing to work with whoever was bringing broadband to the area.
“If any of the internet service providers come to us with a project with a potential match and how far the money will go, I know the commissioners will actively consider it,” Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young said.
According to county staff, Worcester will receive more than $10 million in ARPA funding. About $8 million of that has yet to be allocated. Tuesday’s public hearing was to gather input from the public on how the money should be spent.
Girdletree resident Becky Richardson said she wanted to see the county invest in broadband. She recalled the difficulties her children experienced during the virtual learning that took place during the pandemic. She said she often had to drive them to Snow Hill or Pocomoke and have them do school work in the car in order to have access to internet.
“Access to reliable high-speed internet should be available to every single resident, just as electric is,” she said. “It is necessary now and will become even more important in the future.”
She said she was surprised the county hadn’t partnered with Choptank, as the company is working to bring broadband to rural areas.
Public Landing resident Paul Mumford offered similar comments. He suggested that the county pursue a temporary solution wirelessly as it waited for fiber.
Commissioner Jim Bunting said he could see multiple cell towers from his house but still didn’t have access to internet. He said he wished Choptank would start providing high-speed internet service throughout Worcester.
“They’re not setting the world on fire hooking people up either,” he said.
When Mumford asked how much funding the county had given Talkie, Young said the county had given the company $100,000 to go toward a grant that had netted $2 million. He said the commissioners had also approved a loan to the company but that that had not yet been used.
“Most of what they’ve done in the Pocomoke area has been on their own dime, hoping to get reimbursed by the state,” he said.
Commissioner Josh Nordstrom said he’d spoken to Choptank representatives and that the county was willing to work with them.
Snow Hill resident Regina Royer, who teaches online, reiterated the need for rural broadband. Stacy Hart agreed and said she didn’t want to see the county tied to just one vendor.
Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers said he hoped the county would be using some of its ARPA funding to support fire and EMS service in Worcester. Snow Hill resident Jeff McMahon agreed but said he also wanted to see more broadband.
Snow Hill resident John Bruning said farmers needed broadband. He said they needed a solid connection for things like GPS.
Bunting stressed that the commissioners have been working on broadband and will continue to do so.
“We have not just been sitting here,” he said.
Young reminded those in attendance that when the county issued a request for proposals in order to find a broadband partner, Choptank had not responded.
“They had just gotten the state approval to get into the fiber business and they were not ready to participate,” he said.
He said that the county’s practice had been and would continue to be to provide funding to match grants. County officials have been in communication with all three internet service providers actively installing fiber in Worcester County, he added.
“One is actively going for grants, very aggressive with grants,” he said. “The other hasn’t shown any interest in working with us at all and the third spends more time badmouthing the competition. That’s where we are right now.”
Because installing broadband throughout the county would cost more than $50 million, Young said the county would continue to target matching grants as a way to get more done with limited financial resources.
“We have one company that seems to be going for grants aggressively,” he said. “We’ll match any of them. If any of them come to us and ask for a match we will find the money to match them.”