Charles County Kicks Off Rural Broadband Expansion Effort

Digital Divide
Photo from Unsplash.com.

A multi-million dollar project to expand high-speed internet to rural Charles County formally broke ground Wednesday.

The roughly $6 million project is a partnership between Charles County and the Chestertown-based fiber optic internet supplier ThinkBig Networks. Over the next 28 months, ThinkBig will install 90 miles of wireline broadband connections in the rural communities of Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck in southern Charles County.

Costs for the project will be split between the county, ThinkBig and the state. According to the public-private partnership agreement: The state is on the hook for $2.92 million, the county for $2.59 million, and ThinkBig for $215,361 of the project cost.

Although work on the project began weeks ago, Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), alongside local officials and ThinkBig leadership, formally kicked off the broadband expansion during a Wednesday ceremony.

Hogan touted the state’s broadband expansion efforts, including the Digital Connectivity Act of 2021, sponsored by Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Sarah K. Elfreth (D-Anne Arundel), and $300 million earmarked in the recently passed state budget for broadband expansion.

The Digital Connectivity Act will establish a statewide office of broadband that will aim to expand broadband to every Marylander by the end of 2026, and will set up a fund for future internet buildouts.

“Our goal is clear: to ensure that every single Marylander has access to high-speed internet in every single corner of our state,” Hogan said, adding that public-private partnerships like the effort in Charles County will be key to expanding internet access.

A map of the planned wireline broadband expansion in southern Charles County. Photo from the Charles County government website.

Hogan and Charles County Commissioners President Reuben Collins (D) both said that the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many Marylanders to work from home and attend school online, highlighted the digital divide in both Charles County and across the state.

“Broadband impacts many facets of our residents’ lives, including their careers, education and quality of life,” Collins said. “The pandemic further highlighted that impact.”

County Commissioner Amanda M. Stewart (D), herself an educator and mother of a high school junior in the county’s school system, said the broadband expansion will be vital not only for current students, but for future residents of Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck. Educators have warned throughout the pandemic that the digital divide doesn’t just impact distance learning, but also creates a “homework gap” for students who don’t have access to reliable internet or technology to complete assignments.

“This will benefit everyone, but I’m especially proud of how this will help our children and our teachers for generations to come,” Stewart said.

ThinkBig CEO Mark Wagner said much of the new fiber optic network will be installed underground, allowing it better protection from the elements. He said that, when the project is complete, residents in the rural communities will have access to download speeds up to 1,000 megabits per second with no data limits – much faster than the Federal Communication Commission’s 25 megabits per second broadband definition.

Wagner said the network could support even higher speeds in the future. Progress on the Charles County broadband buildout can be tracked online via an interactive map, and is expected to be completed in phases over the next two years, according to the county’s website.

County Commissioner Gilbert “BJ” O. Bowling III (D) said the project is just the beginning of broadband expansion in the county. He noted that some residents in the county’s more populated areas still struggle to afford the wireline broadband available to them, and he hopes to further expand internet accessibility and affordability in the future.

Collins likewise said that the broadband expansion to Nanjemoy and Cobb Neck is “just the beginning.”

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