When connected to their Wi-Fi at home, the Hahn family usually has to worry when they see clouds or if there’s a big gust of wind.
“Getting connected and staying connected is the hardest thing because you get a good breeze and you’re done. A storm comes along or a cloud and you’re done,” Angie Hahn said.
Hahn, her husband, and her two children live in a rural area of Emmitsburg and must rely on a hotspot for internet. Cable and other fiber-optic internet providers are not available, because according to Hahn, the cost for the companies is too high.
“It’s not cost effective for them. We live in the mountains. We have people on our road, but there’s not enough for [companies] to cover the cost,” Hahn said.
Lack of access to reliable internet has long been an issue in the northern and more rural parts of the county, even as the coronavirus pandemic and distance learning in public schools has illustrated the importance of having a strong broadband connection.
Last fall, the county awarded a $75,000 contract to CTC Technology and Energy to complete a feasibility study to see what coverage gaps exist in the county, and what possible projects should be pursued. The cost was split between the county and the state.
Tom Dixon, chief information officer for the county, said earlier this month the county was anticipating the study to be completed by late June. The coronavirus pandemic and other factors caused some delays in its completion.
Historically, there were several smaller companies with broadband infrastructure throughout the county, Dixon said. Comcast, which renewed its contract with the county in 2018, has slowly bought up those smaller companies, he added.
Because Comcast owns the infrastructure, it would be difficult for other companies to build broadband lines, Dixon said. He estimated that a mile of broadband can cost companies up to $50,000.
According to the county’s 2018 agreement with Comcast, they must offer service if there are 20 houses per mile of road. But many remote areas of the county, especially up near Catoctin Mountain, don’t meet that benchmark.
That includes the Hahns, who run a landscaping business and had two children distance learning due to schools closing during the pandemic. Angie appreciates Frederick County Public Schools providing handouts and working with her family, but she believes internet should be more of a basic utility.
It’s especially frustrating, given the options in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., she added.
“It’s a whole other world when you go to those places. The technology, you can’t even compare it,” Hahn said. “If we know a snow storm is coming, our lives are put on hold completely. Being that close to major cities and the difference between there and here, we’re leaps and bounds behind them in that sense.”
During the pandemic, Dixon said he’s gotten a dozen or so calls from families like the Hahns who are dealing with spotty internet connections. But the county can only set regulations on who provides service in the county.
Verizon, for instance, has not located in Frederick County because it is focusing its efforts on 5G technology, and would have to build its own infrastructure to provide service.
“The county is not in the business of providing broadband, that’s not something the county does,” Dixon said, referring to information he often gives citizens. “The county relies on the vendors to deliver broadband, with Comcast being the primary one.”
“It’s just a business. Comcast is in business to make money and they’re going to look at things like a return on investment perspective, like all companies do,” he added.
The study with CTC technology will hopefully help identify any alternatives to broadband, including whether other vendors from nearby counties can provide service, or if radio wave technology can be used, Dixon said. He said Garrett County uses some of the latter.
Concurrent to that, the state and federal government are also allocating funds to help deliver broadband to rural communities. Congressman David Trone (D-Md.) announced earlier this month an investment of $5 million in grants to pay for rural broadband in western Maryland.
The state’s Office of Rural Broadband is also addressing the issue. Kenrick Gordon, the director of that office, said the state legislature approved $9.18 million in capital funds for the program.
“The Office also receives $2 million in operating funds — these funds are generally used to assist jurisdictions and [internet service providers] applying for federal funding, they fund the pilot program, broadband studies and this year the emergency education grants,” Gordon said in an email.
Dixon said the CTC study should help the county identify what projects would be most feasible in terms of broadband expansion countywide. Gordon said the county must apply to his office, noting how many people will be served, what ISP is participating, a network design and overall construction schedule.
Participating counties must also provide at least 50 percent of matching funds for each project, whether that be county money, ISP funds, other sources or a combination, Gordon said. Application periods for possible projects will open later this year.
Dixon said he doesn’t want county residents to think every house will have access to broadband internet in the immediate future. The county is simply too big and has too much hilly terrain, among other issues, he said.
But no matter what projects the county may pursue, Hahn said it’s important for schoolchildren to have access to quality internet, especially if distance learning continues.
“If the children are going to be expected to do online schooling, then it needs to be equally accessible to everybody ... otherwise the children who can’t get it, there is a stigmatization,” she said.