Student houses had no internet, hotspots were not working, and schools were closed due to the pandemic.
John Gaddis, Superintendent of Somerset County Public Schools, did what he could to keep learning.
He called the bus drivers.
“We paid our bus drivers, and they literally ran their bus routes, and they picked up students, and they brought them to a school where we had Wi-Fi extenders installed on the building,” said Gaddis.
Two days a week for most of the school year, students uploaded their work and uploaded their new assignments from the parking lot.
Now, thanks to federal and state funding, Lower Eastern Shore County is boarding the bus for the 21st century with over 1,000 locations across the county to be connected to high-speed internet.
But questions remain: how quickly can connections be installed? Can the locals afford it? And how will it change the lives of residents of the poorest county in one of the wealthiest states in the country?
The answer to all of these questions depends on collaboration between state, federal and local governments. With coordination, Somerset County and the State could be bettered. Without it, some Marylanders could miss out on economic opportunity and a public service that much of the country takes for granted.
How fast can connections be installed?
On July 8, Gov. Larry Hogan stood in the front yard of a newly-connected home in Harford County, announcing $100 million in internet infrastructure grants to state jurisdictions with money received by the through US federal bailout law.
But Harford County, with a population of more than a quarter million, was not the big beneficiary that day, receiving less than $1 million in grants.
Somerset County, with just 22,000 people, received more than 10 times more money than Harford, more than $13 million, split between two grants to internet service providers in the area.
Choptank Electric, the recipient of one of the grants, plans to connect more than 500 locations with the $4.6 million it received in state funding. It comes as work is wrapping up on a project, funded by a $2.1 million grant last year, that has connected nearly 600 sites.
“These are areas that for-profit broadband companies have been unable or unwilling to serve because there is no (population) density,” said Valerie Connelly, vice president of Choptank Electric Cooperative.
Connelly said his organization initially had a 10-year plan to connect those in the county, but because the money is available, it’s accelerating construction.
Choptank’s CEO has promised that work on the new project will be completed before the start of the 2023 school year.
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Charter Communications, the recipient of the other grant, plans to use the $8.5 million in government funds to expand its fiber optic network to more than 700 locations, primarily in Frenchtown-Rumbly, Hopewell, Kingston, Manokin and Marion Station. They too have already started working in the county, with a planned project to connect 480 sites, mostly in Crisfield.
Can the locals afford it?
While the plans announced by the two companies cover about a third of the 6,000 unserved premises estimated by a 2020 report prepared for the county, Superintendent Gaddis worries that families will be able to afford the newly available service.
Charter’s Internet costs $74.99 per month for a starting speed of 300 megabytes per second, or Mbps, according to company spokesman Scott Pryzwansky. And Connelly of Choptank says their plan is priced at $84.95 per month for 100 Mbps.
“People don’t have disposable income,” said Gaddis, who started as superintendent of Somerset in 2013 and whose father was hired by the school system as a teacher in 1948.
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For the past two years, the county has used $1.8 million in federal coronavirus relief money to buy every student a laptop or iPad, but with less than half of students having one. Reliable internet at home, Gaddis said most students leave their devices at school when they get home.
“What this means for our students is that they are falling behind,” he said.
U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who had been pushing to close this “homework gap” even before the pandemic began, addressed this priceless access conundrum during a Zoom press conference on Thursday. .
“Obviously you have to be online to get access, but you also have to be able to afford it, otherwise there’s no point,” Van Hollen said, when announcing additional federal funding of $95 million. dollars for broadband infrastructure. in the state in addition to what the governor had already announced.
In 2021, Van Hollen supported the Affordable Connectivity Program which provides a $30 monthly rebate for low-income households to use for internet service. All ISPs seeking grants on the $95 million are required to participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program.
“It’s not just coordination in the abstract,” said Gene Sperling, chosen by President Biden to oversee the $1.9 trillion US bailout, when announcing the $95 million. extra Maryland dollars last Thursday.
Van Hollen said the funds will result in connecting about 16,000 locations statewide, covering about another third of locations that still don’t have access.
How will connections change lives?
Dave Harden, a Democrat, hoping to join Van Hollen in Congress by defeating Republican Rep. Andy Harris in the East Coast Congressional District in November, said internet infrastructure was needed to boost economic prospects for rural residents. .
“The ability to connect rural communities or communities that would otherwise have been forgotten has created huge economic opportunities,” Harden said, referring to the outsourcing of jobs to India resulting from internet connectivity.
“There’s no reason we can’t outsource these services to Crisfield or Pocomoke,” said the former foreign service officer, who previously worked as an assistant administrator for the United States Agency for international development, “but that would require us to have the infrastructure.”
Harden said a member of Congress can improve internet connectivity in three ways: oversight, appropriations, and advocacy. While Harden hopes to advocate in Congress for rural communities, those most responsible for implementing the internet connection plan in Somerset County may be an “ad hoc” team, which is working to bring this infrastructure to the region. since before the pandemic.
County engineer John Redden Jr. said it was when schoolchildren couldn’t access the internet that things “hit the fan”.
Danny Thompson, executive director of the county’s economic development commission, said relationships with businesses were already in place by then. He said it’s a little too early to tell if increased internet connections can help lift people out of poverty or if residents will even buy the plans, but he said they’re already starting to see some signs of progress.
Multinationals Cisco and Northrop Grumman have a presence in the county seat of Princess Anne, he said. Now, with the upgrade, Princess Anne Industrial Park is filling up, Thompson said. It also foresees more residential development in the area, due to connections.
“People aren’t buying homes these days without the internet,” said county IT manager Chris Woodward.
Around the corner from the county offices, at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the university brings Comcast service to the dorms, leaving an internal network.
“Today’s student has an iPad, a desktop computer, a laptop, a cell phone, and a watch, and all of those devices are connected to the internet,” said Urban Wiggins, chief information officer by interim and vice-rector of the university.
Wiggins, who is also a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering Technology, said the more internet available to students in the area, the better prepared they will be and the better their chances of being productive students at the university. University.
Just eight miles from Westover, at the Somerset County Public Schools headquarters, Gaddis, who dispatched the buses for students during the pandemic, has seen students and teachers persevere despite the county’s poor connection.
“Other than the cable going to Deal Island, I haven’t seen any change in connectivity,” said the superintendent entering his tenth year with the county. “We have been waiting for years.
Dwight A. Weingarten is an investigative journalist, covering the State House of Maryland and state issues. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @DwightWeingart2.