Harford County will expand Wi-Fi connectivity to the parking lots of five county buildings, county executive Barry Glassman announced.
Wi-Fi access points were installed at the Agricultural Center in Street, Churchville Recreational Center’s Level Building, Fallston Activity Center, McFaul Activities Center in Bel Air and the Havre de Grace Senior Center. The access points will not have passwords, but users of the service must agree to terms and conditions before logging onto the internet. County buildings are still “generally closed to the public" in view of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Tuesday news release.
Harford County spokesperson Cindy Mumby said the expanded Wi-Fi will be permanent and accessible from all areas of the parking lots, though the signals are strongest closer to the buildings. The total cost of the expansion was approximately $17,000.
Mumby said she trusts that citizens will adhere to social distancing guidelines when using the free service and will not cluster close to the buildings.
"We rely on people to use their common sense and follow the guidelines for their own safety,” she said. “You can also stay in your car.”
Public Wi-Fi is also available at all 11 branches of the Harford County Public Library as well as the library administration building in Belcamp. Their parking lots, too, are covered.
The service is meant to help those without reliable, high-speed internet, Mumby said, many of whom live in the county’s rural northern reaches. It also helps people who cannot afford internet.
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"Anyone is welcome but the idea is to provide some help to bridge the gap for folks who do not have reliable internet,” Mumby said.
Glassman, in the statement, said that this is not the only solution to addressing rural areas’ lack of broadband, but it is an interstitial step meant to offer immediate help as the county moves to find a company willing to help expand coverage.
Access to broadband has been a hot issue in Harford, where there are an estimated 2,500 unserved residents. Without grants or federal help, expanding broadband connectivity to the county’s further reaches could be prohibitively expensive to customers. In rural areas, fewer households would have to split the costs of building and maintaining broadband infrastructure, along with the costs of providing the service.
The county is seeking an ISP willing to partner with them to apply for a federal USDA grant that would fund the service’s expansion in rural areas. That grant would be the keystone in bringing internet to those who do not have it. The county cannot independently apply for the grant.
The county previously had a deal with Pennsylvania-based Armstrong Utilities to apply for the grant, but the company unexpectedly balked, citing obligations outside of the county as its reason for pulling out. The company still offers internet in the county, and said it would proceed with a scheduled expansion of its services, covering a few more homes.
Armstrong’s plan would have covered 1,400 eligible residents and businesses at a cost of $12 million over a 5-year period.
The county’s formal request for information to find an ISP willing to apply for grants to expand internet access will go out by the first week of June.