Kathie Geppie gets broadband internet access in her northwestern Baltimore County home, but because of byzantine regulations and high costs, her neighbors can’t.
Largely, it’s because her neighbors’ homes are more than the 300-foot limit that Comcast puts on the distance between a pole and a home that will be connected to its high-speed internet service in Baltimore County.
And it’s not just her nearby neighbors that are unable to get connected: According to Geppie, president of the North County Community Group, well over 1,000 people in the rural part of Baltimore County have reached out to her to say they’re interested in having their homes hooked up to high-speed internet.
“There are at least 12,000 people up here that do not have any access to high-speed internet at all,” she said. “This is definitely the number one quality of life in the northern area. Number one, bar none.”
Not being able to connect to the internet from home is problematic for a number of reasons, Geppie said. Students might struggle to do homework, entrepreneurs are unable to work from home, and nobody is able to access online shopping or streaming services.
Geppie is retired, but that doesn’t mean she’s not busy. She said it would “probably be discouraging” to think about how many hours of work she’s put in advocating and pushing for expanded access to high-speed internet in the rural part of Baltimore County.
And Geppie is not alone in her efforts. Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a nonprofit that exists to “conserve land and resources, preserve historic character and maintain the rural feel and land uses” in the north and northwestern part of the county, said she hears comments about broadband access “everywhere she goes.”
Moore compares expanding rural broadband to the process of rural electrification during the 20th century. Hard, important work.
A lot depends on population density, because it’s more efficient for internet service providers to offer high-speed internet in areas where customers are closer together. Residents of Baltimore County who live north of the Urban-Rural Demarcation Line come up short on density, Moore said.
Additionally, there are plenty of homes in northern Baltimore County with long driveways, meaning homes can be too far from poles where wires would be connected.
But perhaps the biggest issue, Moore said, is that Baltimore County’s franchise agreement with Comcast is more than a decade old — much older than franchise agreements in nearby counties.
According to a research study conducted for the Valleys Planning Council by Billingsley Energy and Environmental Research LLC in 2017, Baltimore County’s franchise agreement with Comcast is from 2004. Frederick County’s dates to 2007, and Harford County’s is from 2016. Montgomery, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties all have agreements from 2017.
Because of the age of the contract, Baltimore County has different standards for the number of homes required per square mile to be serviced by the internet service provider (Comcast) than do other counties.
In Baltimore County, per the research study, density has to be at least 30 houses per square mile. It’s 25 houses in Frederick, 20 houses in Carroll and Harford, and just 15 houses in Anne Arundel and Montgomery.
Expanding rural broadband, Moore said, will be “a tough nut to crack.”
The work being done
Getting broadband into the northern parts of the county will require some modifications in the county’s agreement with Comcast, which is currently being negotiated.
“The County is continuing to engage in ongoing and productive conversations with internet providers and the state to find innovative opportunities to provide infrastructure and service necessary for families. As part of these discussions, the County is hoping to improve density requirements to enhance service levels,” Sean Naron, a spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., said in a statement.
Part of that work, Naron said, was hiring a full-time “cable administrator” in the county’s Office of Information Technology.
An emailed statement from Comcast said, in part: “We are currently in discussions with Baltimore County to finalize a new franchise agreement. The franchise negotiation process is complex and it’s not unusual for a renewal to take some time to complete.”
Naron said the county is also “actively exploring every opportunity to secure outside grant funding to improve rural broadband.” Part of that includes submitting proposals to the state.
The recently established Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband offers funding and assistance to local jurisdictions to expand access to broadband. The office, which was provided with $2 million through the state legislature, will offer grants of up to $200,000 to local governments for construction costs related to an internet service provider extending its services.
Applications are due on Jan. 7; the state published a request for interest in late October.
County Councilman Wade Kach, who represents the northern rural part of Baltimore County, said “it is ridiculous” that some homes in Baltimore County can’t get access to high-speed internet, especially considering the dawn of a new decade is about to hit.
He compared a house not having access to high-speed internet in 2020 to a home in the 1980s not having indoor plumbing.
But now, with the contract being renegotiated and the state accepting applications for grant money, “everything is coming to a head,” Kach said.
“I am very optimistic because this administration, the county, is right on it,” the councilman said. “I think our chances of success are really enhanced with everything coming to a point right now. I’m very optimistic.”