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August 29, 2019

Continue the push for broadband in Garrett County

Credit: The Garrett County Republican, Joseph Hauger

Maryland has the fastest internet access of any state, Gov. Larry Hogan has proclaimed — but in the far western side, those numbers are still lacking.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, the counties with the least-available access are Garrett (32.9%) and Allegany (22.3%). They are followed by Charles County on the eastern side, at 21.9%.

In general, Marylanders in rural areas are less likely to have access to broadband at a level of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload, whether through hard wire, fiber, high-speed wireless, cellular or satellite services. About 98% of urban residents have some sort of connection, but that number drops to 93.7% in the country.

“Broadband access is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity,” said John Draper of the Maryland Farm Bureau. “Our rural residents need reliable internet for health care access, government services, educational and business opportunities, and a greater quality of life.”

The figures are even worse for farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Computer Usage and Ownership report states that 23% of Maryland farms don’t have reliable internet access.

The report also identifies satellite as the most jcommon method for farm owners to access internet. BroadbandNow reports the strength of satellite internet is its availability almost anywhere covered by the transmitters orbiting more than 20,000 miles above Earth. The downsides include lower speeds, higher prices and latency issues that make internet telephony and video communications sometimes unusable.

In his visit to Oakland last week, U.S. Rep. David Trone asked the county commissioners what could be done to help Garrett County.

Commissioner Paul Edwards said getting internet access to the less-populated areas of the county remains a challenge.

“Most of Garrett County that’s easy or moderately easy to get internet has it,” Edwards said. “It’s the areas that are very, very difficult to get to — that cost exorbitant amounts of money to get to one, two or three customers — is where we’re at now for the most part. That’s going to take some coordinated efforts. It’s going to take federal funding, as well as state funding. We certainly can’t do that on our own.”

Calling the internet “a huge deal,” Edwards told the congressman that in the time it’s taking the rollout of broadband access to rural areas, technology is progressing faster. He noted some areas of the country will soon be going to 5G for cellular data delivery, while some local people still have no access at all.

“Broadband is the key to economic development,” Trone said, noting the benefits of rural residents being able to work at home for companies located in Washington, Philadelphia and other areas. “We’ve got to get that done.”

Earlier this month, Hogan announced $9.9 million in available funding as part of the first wave of a five-year plan to provide 225,000 Marylanders in rural communities with reliable, affordable internet access.

Hogan says his initiative will invest $100 million through the Office of Rural Broadband to “finally provide another 225,000 Marylanders in rural communities with access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet services.”

In the 21st century, access to an adequate internet connection has become the new difference between living in town or in the country. Access to affordable internet service positively impacts property values, enables work-from-home opportunities, and supports online education initiatives.

We need it more and more to pay bills and file tax returns, and we want it more and more to find the entertainment we want when it’s convenient for us.

Now is the time for the push to provide all homes in Garrett County with decent, affordable broadband access. We’ve seen progress from all levels of government from local to federal, but no one should rest until in every Garrett County home, internet access is no more difficult to obtain than turning on a light switch.