Story by: Dwight A. Weingarten of the Salisbury Daily Times, published 7/18/22
Students’ homes had no internet, hot spots didn’t work, and schools were shuttered due to the pandemic. John Gaddis, the superintendent of Somerset County Public Schools, did what he could to keep learning going.
He called in the bus drivers.
“We paid our bus drivers, and they literally ran their bus routes, and they picked students up, and they brought them to a school where we had put Wi-Fi extenders on the building,” Gaddis said. Two days a week for most of a school year, students uploaded their work and downloaded their new assignments — from the parking lot. Now, thanks to federal and state funding, the lower Eastern Shore county is boarding the bus to the 21st century with more than 1,000 locations across the county scheduled to be connected to broadband internet.
But questions remain: How fast can the connections be installed? Can residents afford it? And how will it change life for those in the poorest county in one of the the country’s richest states? The answer to all those questions depends on the state, federal, and local government working in concert. With coordination, Somerset County and the state could be changed for the better. Without it, some Marylanders may miss out on economic opportunity and a utility much of the country takes for granted.
How fast can the connections be installed?
On July 8, Governor Larry Hogan stood in the front yard of a recently connected home in Harford County, announcing $100 million in internet infrastructure grants to jurisdictions across the state with money received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act. But Harford County, with a population of over a quarter million, was not the big recipient that day, receiving less than $1 million in grants. Somerset County, with only 22,000 residents, received more than 10 times as much money as Harford, in excess of $13 million, split between two grants to area internet providers.
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 wraps up on a project, funded by a $2.1 million state grant last year, which connected almost 600 locations.
“These are areas that traditionally for-profit, broadband companies have been unable or unwilling to serve because there’s no (population) density,” said Valerie Connelly, a vice president at Choptank Electric Cooperative.
Connelly said her organization originally had a 10-year plan to connect those in the county, but because the money is available, it’s making construction go a lot faster.
Choptank’s CEO pledged the work on the new project would be complete before the start of the 2023 school year.
The main unserved areas in Somerset County, represented in blue, according to a 2020 report prepared for the county. Through federally-funded state grants, officials hope to shrink the territory in the county that is without an internet connection. Charter Communications, the recipient of the other grant, plans to use the $8.5 million in state funds to expand itsfiber-optic network to more than 700 locations, primarily in Frenchtown-Rumbly, Hopewell, Kingston, Manokin, and Marion Station. They, too, have previously started work in the county, with a project scheduled to connect 480 locations, primarily in Crisfield.
Can residents afford it?
While the two companies’ announced projects cover about a third of the 6,000 unserved premises, estimated by a 2020 report prepared for the county, Superintendent Gaddis is concerned about families being able to afford the newly available service. Charter’s internet is priced at $74.99 a month for a starting speed of 300 megabytes per second, or Mbps, according to Scott Pryzwansky, a company spokesperson. And Connelly of Choptank says their package is priced at $84.95 a month for 100 Mbps.
“People don’t have disposable income,” said Gaddis, who began as Somerset’s superintendent in 2013 and whose father was hired by the school system as a teacher in 1948.
Superintendent of Somerset County Public Schools John Gaddis sits at his desk in Westover, Maryland on July 12, 2022. Gaddis had bus drivers pick up students during the pandemic since most did not have reliable internet at home. In the past couple of years, the county used $1.8 million of federal coronavirus relief money to buy each student a laptop or iPad, but with fewer than half the students with reliable internet at home, Gaddis said most students leave their devices at school when they go home.
“What it means to our students is they’re falling behind,” he said.
United States Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who had been pushing to close this “Homework Gap” even before the pandemic began, picked up on this conundrum of access without affordability during a Zoom press conference on Thursday. “Obviously you need to be connected to have access, but you also need to be able to afford it or it doesn’t really do any good,” said Van Hollen, during the announcement of an additional $95 million in federal funds for broadband infrastructure in the state in addition to what the governor had already announced.
In 2021, Van Hollen backed the Affordable Connectivity Program that provides a $30 monthly discount for low-income households to use toward internet service. All those internet providers seeking grants from the $95 million are required to participate in the affordable connectivity program.
“That’s not just coordination in the abstract,” said Gene Sperling, picked by President Biden to oversee the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, during the announcement of Maryland’s additional $95 million last Thursday.
Van Hollen said the funds will translate to connecting about 16,000 locations statewide, covering about another third of the locations still lacking access.
How will the connections change life?
Dave Harden, a Democrat, hoping to join Van Hollen in Congress by defeating Republican Rep. Andy Harris in the Eastern Shore’s Congressional District in November, said internet infrastructure is necessary for increased economic prospects for those in rural areas.
“The ability to connect rural communities or communities that have otherwise been forgotten, has resulted in massive economic opportunity,” said Harden, referring to the outsourcing of jobs to India that has come as a result of internet connectivity.
“There’s no reason why we can’t outsource those 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 it would require us to have the infrastructure.”
Harden said a member of Congress can improve internet connection through three ways: oversight, appropriations, and advocacy. While Harden hopes to advocate in Congress for rural communities, those most responsible for implementing the plan for internet connection in Somerset County may be an “ad-hoc” team, which has been working on bringing that infrastructure to the area since before the pandemic.
County Engineer John Redden Jr. said it was when the school kids couldn’t get internet is when things "hit the fan.”
Danny Thompson, executive director of the county’s economic development commission, said relationships with companies were already in place at that point. He said it’s a bit too early to say whether the increased internet connections can help lift people out of poverty or whether residents will even purchase the plans, but he said they’re already starting to see signs of progress.
Multinational companies Cisco and Northrop Grumman have a presence in the county seat of Princess Anne, he said. Now, with the upgrade, the Princess Anne Industrial Park is filling up, Thompson said. He anticipates more residential development in the area too, as a result of the connections.
“People don’t buy houses with no internet nowadays,” the county’s IT Director Chris Woodward said.
Around the corner from the county offices, at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, the university is bringing Comcast’s service to the dormitories, moving off an in-house network.
“Today’s student has an iPad, a desktop, a laptop, they have a cell phone, and they have a watch, and all of these devices hit the internet,” said Urban Wiggins, the university’s interim Chief Information Officer and vice provost.
Wiggins, who also serves as a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering Technology, said the more accessible the internet is for students in the area, the better prepared they’ll be, and the better chance they’ll be productive students at the university.
Lopez said the problem on the Eastern Shore is in many places, "There's not even slow internet, there's no internet."
Just eight miles away in Westover at the Somerset County Public Schools headquarters, Gaddis, who sent the buses for the students during the pandemic, has seen students and teachers persevere in spite of the county's poor connection.
“Besides cable going to Deal Island, I’ve seen no change in connectivity,” said the superintendent entering his tenth year with the county. “We’ve been waiting for years.”
Dwight A. Weingarten is an investigative reporter, covering the Maryland State House and state issues.