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August 27, 2021

Trone discusses county’s broadband issues

Credit: The Garrett County Republican, Brenda Ruggiero

OAKLAND — As part of his week-long tour of Maryland’s Sixth District last week, U.S. Rep. David Trone discussed broadband priorities in Garrett County on Friday.

“The first time I came out to Garrett County, I sat down with Paul Edwards, your commissioner,” Trone said at a roundtable discussion on funding broadband expansion. “Paul and the other two commissioners were very clear that there are a lot of different things they’d like to have done. Their top thing they asked for was broadband.”

Trone noted that it was crystal clear that Garrett County needed broadband.

“Paul was so right,” Trone said. “He was right on the mark, and what we’ve seen with COVID is three big areas that broadband really hurt Garrett County. It hurt Allegany County, and it hurt a lot of rural counties all over America.”

The first area was work, since people wanted to work remotely because of the COVID-19 situation.

“We couldn’t telework because we couldn’t get enough broadband and fast enough broadband, and that really held a lot of folks back,” Trone said.

The second piece was education, with schools being closed and students needing to be tele-educated.

“I talked to Barbara [Baker], your school superintendent, and when I spoke with Barbara, she told me 40 percent of the students in her district were not getting enough broadband or any broadband,” Trone said. “They didn’t have good enough broadband for downloads and everything else, or they didn’t have any broadband at all. And she said the students that were behind were slipping further behind.”

The third area Trone mentioned was the need for telemedicine, including for mental health.

“So those are three areas that you see how important broadband is,” he said. “That was the biggest assignment I got. So we’ve been trying to work to get broadband here to places in Garrett. It’s a battle. I think long-term there’s going to be a big fix, but it’s going to take another decade.”

Trone mentioned the current federal infrastructure bill includes $65 billion to bring broadband to the entire United States.

“That’s an unbelievable amount of money, but that’s what it’s going to take,” he said. “So government brought roads to Garrett County … only government can do that. We couldn’t afford to build our own road. Government then brought electricity to rural America. Now government’s going to do the third thing, and that is bring the digital highway — broadband, what we all need — to America. So this is a bill that will get bipartisan support. I’m very hopeful.”

Trone noted that he was able to get the first down payment on this in the form of a community-funded grant for $883,574.

“This grant that we were able to get, almost $900,000, will cover 75 percent of the cost,” he said. “Then the county will cover the other 25 percent. It’s going to connect 270 households, 24 farms and 17 businesses.”

Roundtable participants then discussed the current needs for broadband in the county.

Kim Durst, manager of business development for Garrett County, and Josh Hook, business development specialist, gave an overview of what has been done for interim solutions for internet and also shared written remarks and several interviews detailing people’s experiences.

“It’s an interesting dilemma that we have here in Garrett County, but certainly something that you are in full support of,” Hook said. “So we certainly appreciate that.”

Two residents of Walnut Bottom Road in Swanton stated their needs for better internet — for being able to keep in touch with family not living in the area, for schoolwork and for telework.

“I have skills that I could use to earn money, but my skills can’t compete with peers because it takes three hours to upload a word document,” one woman said. “I’m slowly becoming more handicapped. Working out of my home was important, and I couldn’t do it. Coming here is like going back in the 1800s because you don’t have good landlines, you don’t have internet unless you have satellite, and that’s so unreliable. It’s created a dependency that I don’t feel I should have.”

Jennifer Barnard stated that she and her brother have a hemp farm, and it is difficult to operate the way they would like without broadband.

Debbie English is a part-time county resident who wants to move permanently, but is not able to because of the limited internet services available.

Ann Sherrard of the University of Maryland Extension spoke of her work with 4-H youth development during the pandemic.

“4-H switched to offer all kinds of cool online clubs and things that people could do, and our staff was providing some,” she said. “It was an upside that no matter where you were, you didn’t have to be in the state of Maryland to participate in these online activities. So they were happening all across, but hardly anybody in Garrett could do it. They didn’t have the connectivity.”

During the week, Trone visited nine locations where he is working to secure federal funding to help invest in the local economy and create jobs. He spent time in all five counties of the Sixth District.

In Garrett County, he also had lunch with the Garrett County NAACP, participated in a tourism roundtable at Deep Creek Lake, and met with Mikal McCartney of the Microenterprise Council of Maryland and Mike Kosh of Firefly Farms.