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Md. hits snag in meeting goal for rural broadband network

High school senior Kimberly Vasquez sits in front of her laptop in her Baltimore home. The 17-year-old senior struggles to access her online classroom because the family’s low-cost broadband plan, Comcast Internet Essentials, does not provide the bandwidth for her and her two sisters to stream teleconferencing applications at the same time. (Courtesy of Kimberly Vasquez)

High school senior Kimberly Vasquez sits in front of her laptop in her Baltimore home. In November, the 17-year-old senior struggled to access her online classroom because the family’s low-cost broadband plan, Comcast Internet Essentials, does not provide the bandwidth for her and her two sisters to stream teleconferencing applications at the same time. (Courtesy of Kimberly Vasquez)

Maryland’s goal of developing a broadband network for students in rural areas by August 2021 has been pushed back several months.

The delay was caused by “necessary agreements between all the groups involved” taking longer than expected,  said Kendrick Gordon, the director of the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband.

Collaborative Solutions Maryland, a 501(c)3 corporation formed by the University System of Maryland, had been named as the recipient of a $15 million grant to develop the network. The funds come from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds.

A feasibility study for the network is now underway, and the state is aiming to complete the network by the end of the calendar year. This timeline is dependent on how much CSM can rely on existing infrastructure.

“All that we’re really doing is hanging equipment on (communications towers) rather than having to build towers, which can take six months,” Gordon said.

Additionally, completing the project does not mean that the network will be accessible to every rural student who needs it. Instead, it means that, by the end of this year, “the network (will be) stood up and able to deliver service to the students,” Gordon said. From there, it will be up to school districts to actually set up students with service; the districts will also be at liberty to decide which students are given access.

Districts also will have to foot the bill for the operating costs of the network; the $15 million grant only covers the cost of creating the network in the first place. If the feasibility study shows that there will be money left over, however, it may be used to offset the costs for districts.

The development of this network comes after nearly a year after the coronavirus pandemic laid bare the full extent of the “digital divide,” the gap between those who do and do not have internet access. Students and workers across the state have depended on internet access as they have stayed home from school and work.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, governments, companies, school systems and nonprofits have worked to bridge that divide by providing computers and Wi-Fi hotspots to students, though many have nevertheless had to resort to sitting in library parking lots or borrowing neighbors’ WiFi networks to complete their schoolwork.

In Maryland, where over 324,000 rural residents do not have access to high-speed internet service, according to a 2019 report, most K-12 schools are expected to return to in-person learning next month.

The first counties will start receiving service this summer. Ultimately, the network aims to reach all rural Maryland counties, as well as rural parts of non-rural counties. Prince George’s County, for example, is largely urban and suburban, but includes rural pockets in the south near its border with Charles County.

“If broadband is not able to reach a location, it’s rural,” Gordon said.

To better understand where this service is needed, as well as to help the Office of Rural Broadband do its regular daily work of providing grants to jurisdictions looking to expand broadband access, the governor also launched an Internet speed test and survey this week, at maryland.speedsurvey.org, to help measure broadband access throughout the state.

Results from the survey will also allow the office to check data sent to the Federal Communications Commission by internet providers about where they provide service, which can sometimes be inaccurate due to those numbers being “open to interpretation,” Gordon said.

“One of the things that the providers are allowed to do is to claim, we could provide service to that address, but we don’t do it today. Well, to me, that’s an unserved address,” he said. “The other thing they do currently is if they provide service or could provide service to a household in a census block, they get to claim the entire census block is served.”

While Gordon understands criticism that those without internet connection won’t be able to access the survey, he encourages people without broadband access to enter their address via their cellphones or a computer at a different location.

Current plans for the wireless education network don’t include serving urban areas or households that don’t include K-12 students — in fact, even parents of students will not be able to use the network for anything that isn’t directly connected to their children’s schooling.

But Gordon says that both his office and CSM are interested in expanding to reach urban areas once the current phase of the project is complete.

Meanwhile, Baltimore is working to tackle broadband accessibility by creating the role of director of broadband and digital equity as a part of the mayor’s executive team. The role will be the first of its kind in the city and among the first in any mayor’s offices across the nation. The position will report to the city administrator, and is being grant-funded in partnership with the Baltimore Civic Fund.

The director, who will be hired within a month, will be tasked with exploring the possibility of establishing a public municipal broadband system to address the more than 60,000 households in Baltimore without Internet access.

 

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