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Harford seeks internet provider to extend broadband to northern part of county

Randy Nungester, right, general manager for Armstrong Utilities, speaks with Harford County Council Attorney Charles Kearney following a June 4, 2019, public hearing on a council bill establishing a 15-year cable franchise agreement for Armstrong. Armstrong recently backed out of a deal with county government to apply for a federal grant to help fund broadband internet expansion in northern Harford County. The county is now searching for a new Internet Service Provider to work with in applying for the grant.
Randy Nungester, right, general manager for Armstrong Utilities, speaks with Harford County Council Attorney Charles Kearney following a June 4, 2019, public hearing on a council bill establishing a 15-year cable franchise agreement for Armstrong. Armstrong recently backed out of a deal with county government to apply for a federal grant to help fund broadband internet expansion in northern Harford County. The county is now searching for a new Internet Service Provider to work with in applying for the grant.(David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County is looking for a new internet service provider to help offset the cost of expanding broadband to its rural northern areas, after a previous partnership with an ISP fell through.

County Executive Barry Glassman has directed his administration to issue a formal request for information to hone in on an internet service provider that will apply for grants after its previous deal with Armstrong Utilities fell apart. The request is going to go out by the first week of June.

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Previously, county government partnered with Armstrong, a Pennsylvania-based company, to help apply for a grant to fund the project under the USDA ReConnect Program for Broadband Funding.

Harford County and Armstrong had worked on the application since the beginning of 2019, but on Feb. 28, the company withdrew from its agreement and did not apply for the grant. The county did not foresee the company balking, said Cindy Mumby, Harford’s Director of Governmental and Community Relations.

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"We did not have any prior indication,” she said. “It was a long process of working through the application, and we did not know until we knew.”

The issue with extending broadband coverage into the further reaches of the county, Mumby said, is pecuniary; in providing Internet service to fewer houses, companies have to increase prices per-customer to cover the costs of building the infrastructure and serving the area. The USDA grant, which the county cannot independently apply for, is financially critical to getting broadband to the northern part of the county.

"The grants are necessary because of the economics of servicing a sparsely populated rural area where homes are far apart,” Mumby said. “The economics don’t make sense for a private company.”

In a March 13 statement, Glassman expressed his disappointment in the outcome with Armstrong and said that the county would not give up the matter. Reliable broadband access has been a perennial issue for the northern part of the county, and has been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus’ appearance in Maryland.

“Internet access is so important to our daily lives today — for doing our jobs, for running our businesses, for allowing our kids to complete their school assignments, and for staying connected to the outside world,” Glassman said. “During this time when we are facing a threat to public health and when we may be urged to stay at home as much as possible, the lack of connectivity becomes even more of a burden for so many.”

Armstrong, according to the release, offered assurance that obligations outside of Harford County made them unable to continue the process. But they said they would proceed with a scheduled expansion in the area, giving coverage to a small number of homes. Mumby said there are an estimated 2,500 unserved residents in total.

Armstrong’s plan would have covered 1,400 eligible residents and businesses at a cost of $12 million over a 5-year period. Construction would have been a multi-year process, with more than one grant application required, Mumby explained.

County Councilman Chad Shrodes, who represents northern Harford, said the lack of reliable internet is the biggest issue the region faces; he gets calls about it every day. The absence of an internet connection affects students, workers and everyone in between.

"Even prior to the pandemic, the lack of fiber or broadband connectivity, in general, it has always been the number one concern,” he said. “This has shined a spotlight on it, especially now that people, residents and students, are trying to work and study from home.”

Shrodes said density requirements the council negotiates with ISPs have gotten incrementally better, starting at 30 houses per linear mile over 10 years ago and sitting at 15 in the county’s current agreement with Armstrong, meaning more rural communities are eligible to receive broadband than before. He has also sent letters to multiple members of Congress, including U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, advocating for the issue.

Armstrong supplies most of the cable TV services in northern Harford, Shrodes said, and would be well-positioned to offer internet as well, given their existing infrastructure and familiarity. He was disappointed that Armstrong pulled out of the deal but optimistic that they, or another ISPs, would step in to fill the void.

"I am hopeful that the timing will be right this spring to have them answer this request for information,” he said. “They have the most infrastructure already in northern Harford County.”

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Residents and local organizations have also coalesced around the issue.

President of the Harford County Education Association Chrystie Crawford-Smick said at the county’s May 14 public hearing on the budget that the teacher’s union would be willing to help lobby for expansion of broadband in the county. Multiple people have voiced their support for the expansion on social media as well.

But any solution would require federal help, Shrodes noted.

"We need to make sure the federal dollars are there,” he said.

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