(TNS) — Hundreds of thousands of Marylanders lack access to high-speed broadband internet, a long-standing problem that’s become more pressing as school and work move online and social distancing keeps people at home.
Government and private programs aim to connect state residents to broadband during the coronavirus pandemic and build upon earlier efforts to expand digital access. But some residents still worry service won’t come soon enough.
“It’s definitely an urgent need,” said Kerrie Wagaman, a nurse who lives in rural Baltimore County. She is concerned her two kids will get less out of their classes when school resumes online this fall because the household doesn’t have a high-speed connection.
The slow internet means they can’t always upload homework assignments and had spotty coverage for virtual lessons during the shutdown this spring. An estimated 324,000 rural Marylanders don’t have access to high-speed internet, according to a 2019 report from a state task force. And in Baltimore, 96,000 households — more than 40 percent — lack access, a recent Abell Foundation report found, citing census data.
Millions of dollars in federal funds are slated for new broadband access projects. This includes $10 million from the coronavirus stimulus package for a wireless education network for students in Western and Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Another $5 million will provide a similar student network for urban areas.
Providers often are unwilling to cover low-density rural areas, where it costs more to build a network and there are fewer potential subscribers. In 2017, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan created the state’s Office of Rural Broadband, which works with local governments and private companies. It helps secure federal funds and also offers grants to offset the costs of extending service to those without broadband.
One such project will provide roughly $35,000 in state funds to cover half the cost of Comcast extending service to 24 homes on Grace and Black Rock roads in Baltimore County’s Upperco community by early next year.
“I’m happy that the state has a program designed to increase internet coverage in rural areas,” said County Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican who represents northern Baltimore County. “It, unfortunately, is a very slow process.”
Rural county residents say the two dozen homes in Upperco are a small fraction of those that need service. The North County Community Group has been collecting data on households that aren’t connected because the county was not gathering that information, said the group’s president, Kathie Geppi.
In January, she gave the county 2,000 addresses but says “that number should be viewed as very conservative.”
With people working from home and kids needing to attend school online, “people are very frustrated,” Geppi said.
“This is not a new problem, it’s just an acute one right now,” she said.
Baltimore County requires providers to service an area if there are at least 30 homes per mile. Other counties in Maryland have lower density requirements.
Rob O’Connor, who directs the county’s Office of Information Technology, said county officials are seeking better terms for residents as it negotiates a new agreement with Comcast. The county’s contract with Verizon is up for renewal in 2022.
“Lowering that density requirement means more households will become qualified for carriers to build out their location,” O’Connor said.
In areas that fall beneath the current density requirement, county rules say providers must extend service if 15 residents within a mile of an existing line agree to sign up for at least a year of service.
But Wagaman, the nurse, said she and others in her community have tried without success to get Comcast service. About a year and a half ago, she said, 15 households were told they would have to pay more than $105,000 for the company to extend service to them.
“This is not a new problem, it’s just an acute one right now,” says Kathie Geppi, president of the North County Community Group in Baltimore County.
It’s especially frustrating, she said, because there are new houses less than a mile from her Phoenix home that have Comcast service.
Wagaman lives with her husband and two kids in the home where she grew up. They have DSL through Verizon and before the pandemic would occasionally have to drive to her mother’s home in the suburbs to turn in schoolwork online.
But now she is working from home as the health services coordinator for Howard County schools and the slow connection is even more frustrating. In the spring, the kids “would be doing their Google Meets with teachers at same time I’m trying to do meetings with staff,” she said. “We couldn’t all do it at the same time.”
In a statement, Comcast officials said they “want to serve as many customers as is geographically and economically feasible, and continuously evaluate opportunities” to provide service. They said that in rural areas with infrastructure challenges, grants are helping to expand networks “in the most cost-efficient manner.”
School districts around Maryland are trying a patchwork of strategies as they prepare to teach partially or fully online this fall.
On the Eastern Shore, Talbot County public schools’ Education Foundation launched a campaign in June to raise $60,000 to fund internet access for about 300 families by the end of August. So far, the nonprofit has raised $20,000 in donations, according to the school system website.
And Kent County public school administrators plan to use federal CARES Act funding to outfit several buses with wireless internet — like a food truck serving Wi-Fi — so those who need a connection can go to where the bus is parked and get online.
Some school systems, such as those in Carroll and Cecil counties, are setting up hot spots in school parking lots where they say families can park vehicles while their children complete school work in the car.
”Our biggest challenge with broadband availability is that some of our rural areas don’t even have a provider,” said Catherine Yeager Page, Calvert County public schools’ supervisor of accountability.
School officials are planning to give 150 mobile hot spot devices to familes for the upcoming year. The devices and data plans for the school year cost about $300 each. Calvert County schools received grant money from the state to assist with purchasing the hot spots, said information technology director Jonathan McClellan.
Broadband access is not just a rural issue. In Baltimore on Monday students, teachers and parents held a rally to pressure Comcast to improve service and provide free coverage for educators and students. They called upon the company to permanently increase the speed of its Internet Essentials program for low-income households, among other demands.
Baltimore City College senior Yashira Valenzuela, of the group Students Organizing a Multicultural Open Society, said the service “is not as fast as they advertise it to be” and students have had to use public places, such as McDonald’s, to complete assignments that could have been done at home.
Comcast said in a statement that the Internet Essentials program has helped tens of thousands of Maryland residents since starting in 2011. The company said it has also provided thousands of Wi-Fi hot spots, offered two months of free service and waived debts to expand internet access.
”Solving a problem as vast and complex as the digital divide requires collaboration — with the school districts, elected officials, nonprofit community partners, and other private-sector companies — so everyone is part of the solution,” the company said.
In the city, dozens of organizations have joined the Baltimore Digital Equity Coalition, which formed as a “rapid response team” when the pandemic hit. It’s working on a variety of strategies, from setting up a tech help desk for adults in literacy and job-training programs, to refurbishing devices and installing internet access points on rooftops.
“COVID shed such a strong light on the inequities,” said Chrissie Powell, a founder of the coalition and the Baltimore site director for Byte Back, a nonprofit that provides tech training. When the pandemic is over, “I’m hopeful that this sense of urgency to bridge the digital divide is not going to die.”
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