Broadband

Angie Hahn and her son Nathanael, a ninth-grader at Catoctin High School, use a family laptop and an internet access broadband card Thursday to search the web in the backyard of their Eylers Valley Road home near Emmitsburg.

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.

Follow Steve Bohnel on Twitter: @Steve_Bohnel.

Follow Katryna Perera on Twitter: @katrynajill.

Steve Bohnel is the county government reporter for the Frederick News-Post. He can be reached at sbohnel@newspost.com. He graduated from Temple University, with a journalism degree in May 2017, and is a die-hard Everton F.C. fan.

(10) comments

dtwigg

The fact of the matter is Frederick County could have easily provided broadband service, at a reasonable price, to the entire county and turned a profit doing so. They missed a huge opportunity when the Comcast contract was renewed in 2018. With a little foresight and decent Information Technology management, the county could have had a plan in place when it was tiime to renew the contract. It is a failure of imagination and technical expertise.

LeonardKeepers

LH you were lucky to have won your complaint.Many municipalities have tried to put in their own internet services and were beaten back by some politicians and Comcast because they did not want them competing with Comcast,it all boils down to money and the FCC does not want to fight Comcast.

MD1756

You want reliable high speed internet, then move to where it exists. Don't complain about satellite connections just because you choose to live away from everything else. Why not complain about the lack of a public water supply out there? Water is a basic need unlike high speed internet access. Like away from everyone else if you like but don't think it is the public's responsibility or other consumers to pay for it.

Dwasserba

"...but she believes internet should be more of a basic utility." And you pay for them. I

grew up in a city the Allegheny forest, prefer that, want other amenities too though, so I live in a city. My sister owns 250 stunningly preserved acres that lack some things I pay for. People make choices.

bosco

You hit the nail on the head, Dwasserba, life is full of personal choices and when you choose to live out of the city, the services are not going to be the same. Doesn't FredCo have a" right to farm" law to prevent city slickers from moving in next to a farm and then complaining about the smell? [ninja]

joelp77440

Or moving next to the airport and complaining about the planes flying over. When I use to fly, Spring Ridge was always fighting the airport existence. They probably still are but now there are more houses off of Gas House Pike.

bosco

[thumbup][ninja]

MD1756

You're starting to get into another issue now, Bosco. If you are for property rights, does someone have the right to do something on their property that adversely affects someone else on their own property. Smell is one thing but if it gets to the point of actually affecting ones health like factory farms do, then the emissions travelling from one property to another should be regulated.

LHS8888

File a formal complaint with the FCC and Comcast will move on it. I live close to the family in this article and my neighbors and I had to fight for over 2 year to have Comcast come 3/10 of a mile further up the road. I filed the formal complaint with the FCC and the next thing you know, Comcast was installing nodes and getting us hooked up. It has helped serve over 10 FCPS children with high speed internet.

Dwasserba

"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..." yet there is no program to improve city views or provide increased privacy or noise amelioration, because it is what it is when you buy where you buy. I have a few trees and I planted them. Other trees in pots, I bought and planted. The lot cannot support a forested vista. We had issues with our original wiring (house circa 1980) and paid for the improvements when wifi at home was needed for work. Never occurred to me to contact the paper about it. Wifi went out with every rain. Seemed like a personal problem.

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