In this age of instant messages, online breaking news and streaming services such as Netflix, it’s hard for most of us to imagine life without high-speed access to the internet. Broadband, the term used to describe high-speed internet access, has become a need, not simply a want, for nearly everyone.
But access to this utility isn’t easy to get for many in rural parts of Frederick County. Though county officials can’t quantify the number of those who don’t have access to broadband, they believe it is significant. Statewide, Gov. Larry Hogan’s office estimates that as many as 225,000 Marylanders in rural communities can’t get reliable and affordable internet access. In those cases, many must resort to old-school dial-up access over traditional phone lines, satellite dishes or “hot spots” that depend on strong signals from cellphone towers.
In many cases, these folks live in areas where cable companies technically could provide service, but it would require an initial setup cost of thousands of dollars for running a line from the main road. That’s a tough expense for anyone to swallow.
The need is amplified when considering how many home-based businesses are affected or how something as simple as a student’s homework assignment that requires online research or watching an educational video. County Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer told us last week about the frustration she heard from parents, particularly those in Wolfsville and Sabillasville where access isn’t the best, while serving on the PTA Council of Frederick County. “If you have a kid in school, and they have a project, you have to actually drive them someplace so they can do the research they need to get done,” Keegan-Ayer told us.
So it’s good to note that the state will be providing $9.68 million in fiscal 2020 for grants to 17 local jurisdictions, including Frederick County, to help with construction, technical services and other needs to help more gain access to broadband. This five-year plan will require a 50 to 70 percent match from jurisdictions that want access to the funds. The state is working on a funding application process now, and that should be ready this fall, state officials said.
Meanwhile, Frederick County officials recently announced plans for a feasibility study to figure out what the county’s broadband internet needs are and where it might be the most cost-effective to install internet access. This study could help the county develop a plan to tap into state funding.
Ultimately, the county and the state must find ways to ensure that access to the internet is available to everyone. Included in these ways must be incentives and regulations that encourage current providers to expand to rural communities. County Executive Jan Gardner already seems on board. “Everyone depends on better connections to the internet, whether it’s through their computer or their phone,” she said last week. “The need is very real in our rural areas and ... it’s part of rural economic development in some of our smaller communities.”
We recognize that some might feel that broadband internet access is more of a luxury than a need. Forty-some years ago, the same argument might have been made about cable television. Just 20 years ago, it might have been said about cellphone reception. But like cable and cellphones, internet access has become essential for most of us. Equal access to it should be a goal. The programs put in place by the state and county are good steps in that direction.