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Armstrong, Harford County partner to obtain USDA grants to expand cable, internet service in northern Harford

Armstrong, Harford County partner to obtain USDA grants to expand cable, internet service in northern Harford
Randy Nungester, right, general manager for Armstrong Utilities, speaks with Harford County Council Attorney Charles Kearney following a June 4 public hearing on council Bill 19-017, establishing a 15-year cable franchise agreement for Armstrong. (David Anderson/The Aegis / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Harford County government and Armstrong Utilities, a local cable and internet services provider, are collaborating on an effort to secure USDA grants to extend service to households in northern Harford County, where many residents do not have reliable internet service.

The initiative coincides with the Harford County Council’s recent approval of Bill 19-017 to renew Armstrong’s cable franchise agreement, granting the Butler, Pennsylvania-based company the ability to “construct, operate and maintain a cable television system” in Harford County over the next 15 years, according to the bill. The council approved the bill unanimously during its June 11 legislative session.

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The county government is currently working with a consultant, CTC Technology & Energy, of Kensington, to assist Armstrong as it applies to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for grant funds through agency programs to serve “under-served rural areas,” according to county government spokesperson Cindy Mumby.

“The consultant is in the process of helping Armstrong decide how much of the grant funding would be applied for, how much the cost of service would be,” Mumby said Thursday, noting there could be opportunities to find grants from other sources.

The county government, which recently sent a survey to residents of northern Harford regarding their internet service, is paying CTC and will provide data to the consultant, Mumby said. The county’s Board of Estimates approved in April spending up to $60,000 on CTC’s services, which are billed by the hour, according to Mumby. She said officials expect they will be fully reimbursed by the state through the governor’s rural broadband initiative.

Officials have not yet determined the timeline for extending service or how much grant funding they will need. The full cost of CTC’s services is not yet known, as their contract work has not been completed, according to Mumby.

“We really are still in the early stages of this process and gathering and providing information,” she said. “There has been a lot of interest, understandably, in the northern part of the county, and we are doing what we can to move the process forward.”

New franchise agreement

The new cable franchise agreement requires Armstrong to provide service to all parts of its franchise area where the population density is “equal to or greater than” 15 occupied dwellings per mile, “or a proportionate fraction thereof as measured from the nearest point of the Cable System distribution network,” according to the agreement.

That population density has been reduced from 30 occupied residences per mile in the prior agreement, Councilman Chad Shrodes, who represents northern Harford County, said during a June 4 public hearing on Bill 19-017.

Shrodes noted another positive development in the new agreement, in which a “cost-sharing formula” is used to determine how Armstrong and customers in “isolated areas” more than 300 feet from an existing cable distribution network will split the cost of extending service to their residences.

Shrodes also highlighted the promise between Armstrong and the county to partner on seeking grants from the USDA “to further enhance connectivity of our residents to the rest of the world.”

Randy Nungester, general manager for Armstrong Utilities, announced the partnership during the June 4 public hearing.

“We have positioned ourselves well for these grants, as well as other funding opportunities that evolve from this partnership,” Nungester told council members. “We share a mutual goal to provide access to broadband services, which are much needed, to the citizens of Harford County.”

Nungester also said, should the council approve the franchise agreement bill, Armstrong will soon announce plans to upgrade its existing infrastructure to “provide our customers in Harford County — and your constituents — the absolute, most advanced network and services in the United States for generations to come.”

“We’ve enjoyed our close relationship with Harford County and look forward to serving the area for many years to come,” he said.

The previous 15-year franchise agreement dates to 2003, when it was held by Clearview Partners. Armstrong took it over when it acquired Clearview’s Harford County network in 2008, Shrodes said.

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He told Nungester that constituents who have service through Armstrong say the company provides “reliable, fast, basically outstanding service, but it’s those individuals that are not connected, those are the ones I hear from.”

“The lack of reliable cable service in northern Harford County is, without question, the number-one constituent concern in my rural legislative district,” Shrodes added.

‘Time has stood still’

Shrodes must use a “hotspot” device to connect to the internet when at his residence in Norrisville, and he has satellite television service, he said in a follow-up interview. Shrodes said he often goes to his council office in Bel Air for better internet service, such as when he wants to post videos to his Facebook page. He also cited the challenges other residents face when they want to use the internet to do schoolwork, work from home or stream movies.

“The rest of the world continues to move faster and faster, and if you live in certain rural areas it’s like time has stood still,” Shrodes said. “I think every student, anyone that has the ability to work from home, should be able to do so.”

The prior franchise agreement expired last fall, but Shrodes and Council Attorney Charles Kearney have been working with Armstrong since January of 2018 to negotiate a new agreement, the councilman said.

Shrodes thanked Kearney for “working tirelessly” to negotiate with Armstrong over the past year and a half.

The council attorney said during the public hearing that “it has been a pleasure” to negotiate with the provider.

“I believe that this agreement is fair to both parties,” Kearney said. “Each side didn’t get everything they wanted, but we’re each satisfied with what we ended up with.”

Shrodes said he hopes that, with the new franchise agreement and the partnership with the county government to seek grants to expand service, “one day we can connect everyone in Harford County, regardless of where you live, because I think there is a severe disadvantage in many ways.”

Larger providers such as Comcast and Verizon have extended their infrastructure as far north as Forest Hill and the Madonna community in Jarrettsville, as well as Darlington, Level and Havre de Grace, Shrodes said during the follow-up interview. He said Armstrong covers “over 90 percent” of northern Harford, though.

Armstrong’s service area in Harford County starts slightly north of Bel Air and extends into Forest Hill, Jarrettsville and points north to Fawn Grove and Stewartstown into southern York County, Pennsylvania, according to Dave Wittmann, vice president of cable marketing for Armstrong. Wittmann said he could not give out customer numbers, though, since Armstrong is a private company.

Armstrong is the 11th-largest cable operator in the U.S., serving customers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York, according to Wittmann.

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Wittmann said company officials hope to work with Harford County, should grants come through, and “find ways to fill in a few of the gaps [in northern Harford] where the homes are so far apart.” Working through the USDA’s program to expand broadband internet service in rural communities, company officials want to “try to find ways to make it economically feasible to service sparsely-populated areas,” he said.

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