xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Harford finds partner to expand broadband access in northern parts of county; Norrisville area can sign up now

After months of searching, Harford County has entered into a partnership with a private internet service provider to expand broadband access to the county’s rural areas over the next few years, the administration announced Wednesday.

ThinkBig Networks, based in Chestertown, was selected as a partner after the county issued a request for information in June 2020. The expansion of broadband to the northern areas of the county will be done in phases, and its construction and timing will be dependent on grant funding, the county administration announced.

Advertisement

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman said broadband expansion to rural areas has been a priority of his administration, and this is a major step forward in getting internet access to under-served county residents. He said he did not want to over-promise, though, as the project will take time.

“It is a long-term investment and project; it is not something that is going to be done in a year or two years,” he said. “When you are dealing with rural areas … it takes time for the build-out.”

Advertisement
Advertisement

Under the agreement, the county will expand its fiber-optic network — called the Harford Metro Area Network or HMAN — that connects government buildings, the sheriff’s office, volunteer fire companies, schools and other civic services. That cable runs throughout the county, Glassman said, and will be expanded, allowing ThinkBig to branch off it and deliver internet to homes and businesses in the county’s rural northern areas.

The network’s expansion will be paid for with $2 million from the CARES Act that was encumbered before the funds expired in December, Glassman said.

The push to expand broadband is largely dependent on grant money, which the county alone cannot apply for. Previously, it had an agreement with Armstrong, a Pennsylvania-based company, to apply for a federal grant under the USDA ReConnect Program for Broadband Funding, but that partnership fell through in February of 2020 when Armstrong unexpectedly reneged.

The issue of expanding broadband is pecuniary — costly investments in infrastructure servicing few homes translates to high prices for customers. Glassman said the rates of the service will be determined by ThinkBig, but grant funding can help offset the costs for county residents. Per the agreement, ThinkBig will have to charge “reasonable” rates comparable to those found in more densely populated areas of the county, according to a statement from the county.

Advertisement

Approximately 2,500 homes in northern Harford County have no internet service, and “thousands more rely on technologies that fall short of broadband,” according to the statement.

ThinkBig Networks has entered into a partnership with Harford County to use designated fiber optic lines on the Harford County Metro Area Network to provide broadband connectivity to the under-served areas in the northern part of the county. The first phase for this project will be in the area of Norrisville, shown on this map.
ThinkBig Networks has entered into a partnership with Harford County to use designated fiber optic lines on the Harford County Metro Area Network to provide broadband connectivity to the under-served areas in the northern part of the county. The first phase for this project will be in the area of Norrisville, shown on this map. (Courtesy ThinkBig Networks)

Phase 1 of the project for Harford County will begin in the northwest with the Norrisville area, which has the highest number of homes and businesses without service. ThinkBig is now accepting reservations for that area on its website. Community interest will partially dictate the following phases.

Internet access has been a perennial problem for the county’s rural areas, and the issue was thrown into sharper relief with the arrival of COVID-19 in Maryland and subsequent restrictions that had more people working and attending school virtually from their homes. With residents’ increasing reliance on the internet, Glassman said, rural communities should not be left out in the cold.

“In a lot of the northern areas where they are close enough to our [fiber-optic] backbone, I think the build-out will do a lot to get to these under-served areas,” Glassman said.

In the statement, County Councilman Chad Shrodes said news of the partnership was welcome. The issue of internet availability is keenly felt in his northern councilmanic district and often raised by his constituents.

“My constituents in northern Harford County are in need of high speed internet and I couldn’t be more excited to see this project move forward,” Shrodes said. “I encourage everyone to register their interest with ThinkBig, and I thank County Executive Glassman for his persistence in finding a solution.”

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement