Ru­ral res­i­dents face chal­lenges with­out wired broad­band in­ter­net

The Enquire-Gazette - - News - By RACHEL BLUTH Cap­i­tal News Ser­vice

AN­NAPO­LIS — Richard Thomp­son runs a busi­ness de­sign­ing news­pa­per pages from his Calvert County home, but he can’t do all his work there.

Re­cently, he had to to take his lap­top to the li­brary 3 miles up the road, down­load a pro­gram he needed, save it to a flash drive and in­stall it on his home com­puter.

This isn’t out of the or­di­nary for Thomp­son, who has to go to the li­brary when­ever he needs to up­load or down­load large files be­cause he doesn’t have broad­band In­ter­net at home.

“I get very close ac­quain­tance with the lit­tle cir­cle that goes around and around along with the word ‘con­nect­ing’,” he said.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands in Mary­land lack broad­band ac­cess.

In Mary­land, the state the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency calls home, 4 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion, around 260,000 peo­ple, don’t have ac­cess to wired in­ter­net. The per­cent­age is higher in ru­ral ar­eas of the state, where 13 per­cent of res­i­dents, or 95,000 peo­ple, don’t have ac­cess to “Fixed Ad­vanced Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Ca­pa­bil­ity,” ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion.

Wired in­ter­net is ei­ther fiber, cable or DSL, a Dig­i­tal Sub­scriber Line. With­out wired ser­vice, peo­ple look­ing to get on­line have to rely on satel­lite in­ter­net, which can be un­re­li­able in bad weather, or, more of­ten, they use wireless in­ter­net hotspots.

Wireless in­ter­net can be both ex­pen­sive and lim­it­ing, be­cause it’s me­tered. Users only get a cer­tain amount of in­ter­net per month, and over­age charges can be ex­or­bi­tant, up to $200 per month for 4g wireless in­ter­net, which doesn’t in­clude charges for us­ing more than 20 gi­ga­bytes.

Thomas Thomp­son, Richard Thomp­son’s son, teaches engi­neer­ing and com­puter science at West­lake High School in Wal­dorf.

At home in Prince Fred­er­ick, he pays $200 a month for 4g wireless in­ter­net, not count­ing the other $200 he spends each month on ser­vice for his fam­ily’s land­line, two cell phones and one iPad.

Each month, he gets an al­lowance of 20 gi­ga­bytes, which he says “slows down to a crawl” if there are many peo­ple on their phones at once or if something, like build­ings or trees, get be­tween him and the cell tower that pow­ers his In­ter­net.

Be­cause he can’t af­ford to spend pre­cious band­width on down­load­ing his stu­dents’ de­sign projects to grade at home, he of­ten spends hours at the school, after classes, grad­ing them.

For Thomas Thomp­son and his col­leagues, watch­ing a clip to show in class or up­load­ing ma­te­ri­als means mak­ing a care­ful cal­cu­la­tion about what their home in­ter­net can bear.

“It’s something you end up avoid­ing and not do­ing from home,” he said. “You stay at work un­til you get it done or you can’t stand to be there any more.”

It was worse when Thomas Thomp­son was work­ing on his master’s de­gree on­line in in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy from Univer­sity of Mary­land Univer­sity Col­lege, when down­load­ing jour­nal ar­ti­cles and work­ing on projects meant stay­ing at school un­til 7 or 8 p.m.

It’s a strug­gle Nick Er­soy knows well. Er­soy, a sopho­more at St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land, com­mutes to cam­pus from his home in Calvert County. Though his school has Wi-Fi on cam­pus, his com­mu­nity does not.

“School­work has a due date re­gard­less of if you’re on cam­pus,” he said.

Hav­ing me­tered, wireless in­ter­net means go­ing with­out Net­flix, YouTube and streamed mu­sic. His fam­ily care­fully mon­i­tors how much In­ter­net they use, so most stream­ing is out of the ques­tion.

Er­soy’s fa­ther, Javit Er­soy, says he pays “hun­dreds of dol­lars” per month for a 30 gi­ga­byte Ver­i­zon Fu­sion plan that isn’t enough for his busi­ness and a fam­ily of five, so he pays for a sec­ond plan from an­other car­rier as well.

In the more pop­u­lated ar­eas of Queen Anne’s County, like Kent Is­land, where 50 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives, res­i­dents can sub­scribe to wired At­lantic Broad­band.

The prob­lem is in the ru­ral ar­eas of Queen Anne’s, which in­clude a lot of un­in­cor­po­rated towns where peo­ple mostly only have ac­cess to me­tered op­tions, ac­cord­ing to Me­gan DelGau­dio, in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy man­ager for the county.

“It’s a fi­nan­cial strain for peo­ple who have to use me­tered de­vices,” she said. “It’s hold­ing back some [res­i­dents] ei­ther be­cause of the ex­pense of what they’re pay­ing for it, or not re­ally hav­ing any ac­cess to it at all.”

The FCC doesn’t con­sider wireless in­ter­net a vi­able al­ter­na­tive to broad­band.

“Cus­tomers that are de­pen­dent solely on mo­bile broad­band are sig­nif­i­cantly more likely to ex­ceed their monthly al­lowances, caus­ing them to in­cur ad­di­tional fees or forgo use of the in­ter­net,” the fed­eral agency re­ported in Jan­uary.

The re­port warns that peo­ple with­out in­ter­net ac­cess have dif­fi­culty ac­cess­ing health in­for­ma­tion and job op­por­tu­ni­ties, which puts them at a “sig­nif­i­cant dis­ad­van­tage.”

Ver­i­zon is a pub­lic util­ity that man­ages cop­per wires laid down for land­lines many years ago. It can choose to of­fer DSL ser­vice to peo­ple over these wires.

Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert) sub­mit­ted a bill that would re­quire Ver­i­zon to main­tain those cop­per lines and of­fer DSL ser­vice over them.

Un­der Fisher’s pro­posal, which never made it out of a state House com­mit­tee, Ver­i­zon could con­tract out to a third party to pro­vide the DSL over Ver­i­zon’s lines, or just pay into Mary­land’s Ru­ral Broad­band Ac­cess Fund for the state to pro­vide the DSL.

The Ru­ral Broad­band Ac­cess Fund was cre­ated in 2009 to es­tab­lish broad­band in un­der­served ar­eas of the state, and has had in­con­sis­tent fund­ing since then.

DSL isn’t per­fect, and it isn’t the new­est tech­nol­ogy. Coax­ial cable has been around since the 1980s, and Ver­i­zon has been of­fer­ing FiOs, fiber op­tic in­ter­net, since 2005.

DSL also op­er­ates on an ag­ing in­fra­struc­ture. The cop­per wires that are used for DSL were put down for land­lines, which cus­tomers are aban­don­ing in fa­vor of cell phones. This means that the cop­per wires don’t al­ways get the ser­vice they may need.

“If you ask any­one who ... still has a wired, old-time home phone, they’ll tell you it’s de­grad­ing on a monthly ba­sis be­cause it’s not be­ing main­tained,” Fisher said.

It’s not an ideal so­lu­tion, es­pe­cially for ser­vice providers like Com­cast.

“DSL is a com­pletely out­dated tech­nol­ogy,” said Sean Looney, the vice pres­i­dent of govern­ment af­fairs for Com­cast. “It may be a Band-Aid so­lu­tion in the short term.”

But fiber isn’t a vi­able al­ter­na­tive for Com­cast ei­ther, Looney said.

“Com­cast would love to serve 100 per­cent of the res­i­dents of the state of Mary­land, but there are some lo­ca­tions that are just not cost-ef­fec­tive [for fiber lines],” Looney said.

Still, for some res­i­dents, out-of­date tech­nol­ogy is bet­ter than no in­ter­net ac­cess at all.

“If we can’t be in the 21st centu- ry, at least get us to the last part of the 20th,” said Richard Thomp­son, who turns his in­ter­net off most of the day so he doesn’t rack up data charges.

Even in places that do have op­tions for cable or FiOs, Fisher said, se­niors and low-in­come fam­i­lies might want DSL as a cheaper al­ter­na­tive to pricey in­ter­net plans.

In Kent County, an­other so­lu­tion is un­der­way to bring in­ter­net to largely un­der­served ar­eas.

Over the next two years, a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pany called FTS will put down fiber lines in Kent County. Kent County will pay around $5 mil­lion and FTS will pay for the rest of the $20 mil­lion project.

The rea­son FTS can lay fiber in less pop­u­la­tion-dense ar­eas is be­cause they pro­vide “dark fiber,” as op­posed to the “light fiber” that out­fits like Ver­i­zon FiOS pro­vides.

Un­like Ver­i­zon, FTS doesn’t “light” the fiber with in­ter­net ac­cess, it only lays the fiber and leases it to an in­ter­net ser­vice provider.

There is a deal in place with Think Big Net­works, an in­ter­net ser­vice provider, but other ISPs will be able to lease the fiber as well, ac­cord­ing to Brett Hill, the CEO of FTS.

Hill said his com­pany can af­ford to lay fiber where big­ger com­pa­nies can’t be­cause he views the fiber as a long-term in­vest­ment.

“We find in the ru­ral ar­eas, there is eas­ier and less ex­pen­sive con­struc­tion than we’d find in an ur­ban area,” Hill said. “Look­ing at the county as a whole, we’re able to bal­ance the more dense ar­eas with the more sparse ar­eas.”

FTS will start con­nect­ing 54 Kent County govern­ment lo­ca­tions, and by late 2017 or early 2018, Hill said, res­i­dents will have In­ter­net in their homes.

Kent County Com­mis­sioner Bill Short said pro­vid­ing fiber will have a wide-rang­ing eco­nomic im­pact.

“It’s go­ing to do in­cred­i­ble things for Kent County,” Short said.

Slow or un­re­li­able in­ter­net can curb home sales in ru­ral parts of the state.

Ken­dra McCourt, a real es­tate agent in Charles County, said the first ques­tion buy­ers of­ten ask her is whether the prop­erty has In­ter­net ac­cess.

She said peo­ple are at­tracted to new con­struc­tion in Hugh­esville or Bryant Town, where they can get large homes and an acre of land. But when they find out that they’ll only have ac­cess to satel­lite In­ter­net, they leave.

“If you can’t find them something, they’ll jump over the bridge and go to Vir­ginia,” McCourt said. “I’m not li­censed in Vir­ginia, so I lose the sale.”

She had to push one cou­ple who needed to work from home to In­dian Head, 25 miles from their pre­ferred area, so they could have Com­cast.

She said her cus­tomers are faced with a choice: “Do I go with bet­ter ser­vice or do I go where there’s a house that’s bet­ter for me?”

Of­ten, they’re choos­ing in­ter­net ac­cess, which pulls them away from ru­ral ar­eas.

“There have been times where we have had buy­ers who would have bought but didn’t,” said Paula Reeder a real es­tate agent in Ch­ester­town. “We’ve had peo­ple change their fo­cus to other ar­eas.”

Reeder said the ex­panded In­ter­net in Kent County will at­tract both res­i­den­tial buy­ers and busi­nesses that have been re­luc­tant to move in.

In a county where 92 per­cent of the land is used for farm­ing, the agri­cul­ture sec­tor is suf­fer­ing from a lack of ac­cess too, Short said.

Un­re­li­able in­ter­net most ad­versely af­fects farm­ers try­ing to im­prove their growing oper­a­tion by in­cor­po­rat­ing state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy, ac­cord­ing to Jar­rod Miller, an agri­cul­ture agent with the Univer­sity of Mary­land Col­lege of Agri­cul­ture and Nat­u­ral Re­sources.

Miller works in Som­er­set County, and said it seems that in­ter­net ac­cess is harder to come by in Mary­land’s lower shore.

“If we’re hav­ing train­ing ses­sions or free we­bi­nars on­line you can watch, that could af­fect peo­ple that want to learn more,” he said. “... In­ter­net ac­cess ef­fects grow­ers when they can’t get ac­cess to up­dated in­for­ma­tion.”

“I also see farm­ers strug­gling in more ru­ral ar­eas be­cause many of their li­cens­ing and record-keep­ing things are all Web-based now, as op­posed to pa­per-based,” said Shan­non Dill, an agri­cul­ture agent for Tal­bot County.

Though Kent may be see­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties for In­ter­net soon, it does lit­tle to help Richard Thomp­son in Calvert County. He’ll con­tinue to go to the li­brary and use soft­ware on his de­vices on “me­tered mode” to pre­serve his limited data.

“There isn’t a whole lot that I can do,” Richard Thomp­son said. “For right now, it’s sta­tus quo.”

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