Frederick County will use a combination of local, state and private funds to launch a pilot program to install broadband internet in Rocky Ridge, a project officials hope will spur greater access for other residents in rural areas in the coming years.
County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said Thursday the county received a $202,000 grant from the state after applying in January. Frederick County will contribute around $160,000 to help Comcast install broadband in the Rocky Ridge area, about five-and-a-half miles east of Thurmont.
Vivian Laxton, communications director in Gardner’s office, said Comcast will also contribute funding, but that still needs to be determined through a memorandum of understanding through the county. The Rocky Ridge project should be completed by the summer of 2022, Laxton added.
County officials will use money out of the $1 million budgeted in the fiscal 2022 budget to pay their share, Gardner said.
“There was existing line that was fairly close to there, and so there was a place where they could make that connectivity into that underserved area, with some proximity,” Gardner said when asked why Rocky Ridge was chosen as the pilot project. “So it’s a lower-cost project … it was the low-hanging fruit in the unserved area.”
The pilot project begins after a rural broadband study between the county and CTC Technology and Energy. Gardner highlighted some of the findings of that study Thursday, including three areas where scores of county residents are unable to receive consistent broadband service: west of Emmitsburg, east of Emmitsburg running south through Ladiesburg and Johnsville and the southeastern part of the county near Sugarloaf Mountain.
Gardner said a line serving all those communities, starting west of Emmitsburg and running down the eastern part of the county south to Tuscarora would cost more than $20 million. Residents would still need to pay to get the line from the public road to their home, with costs varying on how long of a distance that is.
But she added the federal government will make millions of dollars of grants available in future years.
The county executive said she hears at least once a week from residents who want better internet access.
County Councilman Kai Hagen (D), who lives in a rural area near Thurmont, understands those concerns. He’s had some internet trouble connecting to virtual County Council meetings.
A lot of residents in more densely populated areas may not know how many residents in rural areas countywide struggle with internet issues. But there’s a great need to expand the network, Hagen said.
“It’s an issue for people who work at home, it’s an issue for students who are working from home … I think when you look at modern society, it’s pretty hard to argue that a good, reliable high-speed internet connection is not part of essential infrastructure,” Hagen said.
Gardner said she often hears complaints from county residents about why the county doesn’t enter the business of providing internet, or why more internet options aren’t available.
She said Comcast has most of the available infrastructure to add service and Verizon appears to want to expand in areas closer to Washington D.C., where there are more residents and more opportunity to turn a profit.
Hopefully thousands of county residents will have better access to internet in the next five to 10 years thanks to federal grants and other initiatives, Gardner said. Other providers, including ThinkBig from Chestertown, are interested in expanding networks into Frederick County, according to the rural broadband study.
But the state and federal government need to work with local governments to improve rural broadband, she said.
“We’re not going to get into private sector business … I don’t think anybody who sits in this seat will ever want to do that,” Gardner said. “I just don’t think it makes sense to shift literally tens of millions of dollars of our budget into being a internet provider, when we need schools and roads and libraries and fire stations and these other things our community demands from us.”