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Maryland awards $30M in grants to expand broadband internet access

The state of Maryland is awarding nearly $30 million to projects that aim to expand broadband internet access to unserved or underserved communities, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday.

The awards come from two state programs: the Expansion of Existing Broadband Networks Funding Program and the Broadband Infrastructure Grant Funding Program. This round of funding is the most in the programs’ histories, a result of the state’s $300 million investment into broadband technology through funds from the American Rescue Plan.

The awards will expand broadband to more than 12,000 households in 18 counties, according to a press release.

Under the Expansion of Existing Broadband Networks Funding Program, local jurisdictions partner with internet service providers to request funding for smaller projects, said Kenrick Gordon, the director of the Office of Statewide Broadband (OSB).

The awards for the expansion program cover 60% of construction costs with a maximum grant of $240,000, an increase from the 50% of construction costs that the funding usually covers. The state gives recipients 18 months to complete the projects.

The Broadband Infrastructure program is designed to construct new networks in areas where hundreds of households may need service, Gordon said. Internet service providers apply directly for these grants, but they must have support from local jurisdictions.

The infrastructure awards announced Tuesday also cover 60% of construction costs with a maximum grant of $3.6 million, Gordon said. The timeline for completing these projects is three years.

“It takes time to get a final design, it takes time to get permitting for broadband, it takes time to work with the utility companies that own the pole lines that run down the road that we need to connect to or hang from. And then it takes time to actually build the infrastructure,” Gordon said.

The awards are the latest effort from the state to expand broadband access amid a pandemic that has exacerbated the inequalities that people face in accessing the internet.

Earlier this year, the General Assembly passed a bill that established the OSB under the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development. The awards announced Tuesday are the first administered by the OSB, an office previously named the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband.

The bill also required OSB to develop a statewide plan that would ensure 98% universal broadband access by the end of 2025.

“The pandemic showed us that broadband was something that every household needs,” Gordon said. “And I think not just Maryland but across the country, funding has been dramatically increased for broadband as people realize just how necessary it was.”

Local jurisdictions are also taking steps to prioritize broadband access.

In March, Jason Hardebeck became Baltimore city’s first director of broadband and digital equity. Baltimore city did not apply for the most recent round of awards, but there are plans to submit a grant request to the OSB in the future, Hardebeck said.

The OSB is also developing a broadband network for students in rural areas — a process that has been pushed back several months. Gordon said the feasibility study for the network should be complete within the next two to four weeks, after which the state will “have a much better idea” of when the network may be complete.

In the future, Hardebeck said, “every option needs to be on the table” to ensure people have access to broadband.

“We cannot depend on the private sector and market forces alone to bridge the digital divide,” Hardebeck said.