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September 05, 2019

Roundtable focuses on rural broadband challenges

Credit: Herald-Mail Media, Mike Lewis

For about two hours Thursday, federal officials heard how essential high-speed internet is to Western Maryland and how hard it is to extend that service to some rural regions.

By the time the roundtable discussion had ended, those officials had added a few more items to their to-do lists.

“At the end of the day, broadband means jobs, jobs, jobs. We can’t have a growing economy here without fixing the broadband problem first. So that’s why we’re here today. … We’ve got to put together a task force that owns this problem and says, ‘Let us work together.’ Because it’s not Washington County working independently of Allegany (County), independent of Garrett (County). We’ve got to get Western Maryland working together on the same playbook,” Rep. David Trone said after the meeting.

Trone and U.S. Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen hosted the roundtable at the Burobox Entrepreneur Resource Center in downtown Hagerstown. Joining them at one end of the room were Geoffrey Starks, one of five commissioners on the Federal Communications Commission, and Kendrick Gordon, director of the Maryland Office of Rural Broadband. Also at the table were more than 30 others, representing county and municipal governments, economic and business groups and internet providers such as Antietam Broadband and Comcast.

Gordon served as moderator, calling on people from each county to describe how they’re working to extend high-speed internet service to rural parts of Western Maryland. During the discussion, the group touched on a range of issues, from the expense of serving areas with relatively few customers to the growing dependence on high-speed internet in agriculture, business, education, medicine and family life.

The panel heard that 93% of Marylanders in urban areas have access to high-speed internet. That percentage drops to 68% in rural areas.

Some speakers said the FCC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state all have funds to help extend service in rural areas. But the application processes can be too complicated and cumbersome. Others said the FCC maps don’t accurately show which areas have access and which regions do not.

They also said that, because of topography, development and other issues, each county faces its own challenges. For example, Montgomery County is usually considered an urban area, but it has an agricultural reserve region that lacks high-speed internet.

After the meeting, Van Hollen said Marylanders need to be involved in the rules the FCC is drawing up for a $20 billion rural broadband fund.

He also compared the rural broadband effort to the drive that extended electricity throughout the country.

“We decided as a country that, in order to be successful, everybody should have access to electricity,” he said. “I believe that, in order for all our communities and households and individuals and families to be successful, you need access to high-speed internet.”

Cardin agreed that broadband access has become essential.

“What we need to do is different in different communities, but there’s a common problem,” he said. “If you live in an area that doesn’t have a dense population, it’s more expensive to provide the services, so you need to get help. Help can come from the federal government. It can come from the state government. It can come from the county government. It can come from the private sector. But we have to work together to make this a reality.”

From his perspective at the FCC, Starks said, it’s essential to form partnerships because “there’s only so much folks can do at the government level.”

Having broadband, he said, has become an issue of equality.

“Where you have folks that have been left out for decades and decades, and folks who are angry that they feel that they’re not getting the internet that they know is out there and being provided to a lot of other Americans, I think rightfully so, you see that it is impacting our democracy,” he said. “And so it’s important — essential — that we start to get this right as quickly as possible.”