Landmark Study Sets Path to Broadband in Cecil County; ‘Once in Lifetime’ Chance to Bring Internet to South County– Will County Govt. Step Up to Plate?
A new landmark study by a broadband advisory panel has charted an innovative course for Cecil County to jumpstart Internet services that have so far bypassed much of the county—including installation of fiber optic cable in conjunction with a proposed extension of a waterline from Cecilton to Earleville. The panel also calls for treating broadband as an infrastructure requirement, like waterlines, for development of new housing and commercial developments.
But whether the county government will seize the opportunities cited by the panel—including proposals to offset potential costs with revenues to the county’s general fund already paid by cable television franchisees– remains to be seen.
In other Maryland counties, and even in remote rural areas in states such as Iowa, innovative broadband initiatives have brought major economic development and quality-of-life improvements, according to a review of other areas’ alternatives by Cecil Times. And some County Council officials in Maryland, such as Montgomery County Councilor Hans Riemer (See his proposal here: http://councilmemberriemer.com/fiber/ ) are exploring state-of-the-art super high-speed gigabite fiber optic services, in conjunction with federal agencies, to create hubs of high-tech jobs for the future.
But Cecil County is still in many respects in the horse-and-buggy era of the information superhighway.
The lack of high-speed Internet access in many areas of Cecil County has posed an obstacle to economic development, since adjacent areas such as Harford County in Maryland and New Castle County in Delaware are all light-years ahead of Cecil in availability of modern Internet access. And even with a few recent advances—such as the recent Comcast/Xfinity expansion of bundled TV/Internet/phone service packages in southern Cecil County in the past few months—much of the county is still lagging far behind other nearby areas in terms of affordably-priced and business-friendly Internet services.
The Cecil County Broadband Task Force, chaired by Dave Warnick, is scheduled to present its report to the County Council on Tuesday 8/19/14 at the panel’s evening meeting, which is open to the public. The task force was appointed at the beginning of the year, upon the initiative of County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5). Hodge told Cecil Times on Monday he was still reviewing the report and would reserve comment until after Warnick’s formal presentation Tuesday evening.
The 12-member task force’s 41-page report, including multiple maps and charts of existing high-speed internet services available in Cecil County as well as black-out areas with minimal services, includes several significant and innovative recommendations.
At the outset, the panel urges that the county government should become a “catalyst in ensuring comprehensive access to the information superhighway.” But to do so, significant obstacles must be overcome.
The advisory panel “identified 27 areas that are truly underserved” in Cecil County for internet services. And, while satellite-based service providers such as HughesNet and DirectTV may provide slower-service options, cell-tower based “4G” phone-tied services are, where available, “exorbitant” in cost.
The county should take advantage of a closed fiber optic line, installed at state expense northward up Route 213 and along the east-west Route 40 corridor, to find ways to tap into that currently closed line. Only some schools and government buildings are now able to tap into the state-provided fiber optic line.
In addition, in the key Route 40 business growth corridor of Cecil County, “significant and major gaps exist” and there are also internet holes in other important business areas, such as the Principio industrial park. “The result of these gaps is significant loss of business locating in Cecil County due to inability to secure necessary broadband infrastructure,” the report said.
One key gap in the system is the new proposed county School of Technology at the former Basell property on Appleton Road. Among the new areas of study proposed there are computer and information technology-related programs but the site is currently not on the map of public facilities tied into high speed internet lines.
A key initiative cited by the study panel was what it called a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to tandem fiber optic internet cable with a proposed water line from the town of Cecilton to three Earleville communities whose wells have been polluted by a US Army Corps of Engineers dumpsite on Pond Neck Road.
Construction of a proposed Cecilton town water line — which will be paid for by the Maryland Port Administration— to serve the Earleville communities provides an opportunity to piggyback on that project for just “pennies on the dollar” to add communication lines into the trenches dug for the water pipeline, and would “provide a fiber optic backbone to Earleville,” the new report noted. The panel urged inclusion of funds for the project in the county’s upcoming Fiscal 2016 capital improvement budget.
The study uses that unprecedented opportunity as a guidepost for what it suggests would be a forward-looking change in county subdivision regulations to require new housing developments to include pipeline space for future Internet cables just as rules now require waterlines for new developments. The panel cited several cases where newly-built subdivisions had no provision for even basic cable TV services and some fairly new housing developments where individual homeowners would have to pay $3,000 or more just to connect their homes to basic cable services.
A key provision of the new study was the suggestion that the County Executive let go of an estimated $740,000 a year from cable TV franchisees that is currently received by the General Fund— which can be tapped for virtually any county spending— and instead re-allocated that money as an investment in new initiatives to expand Internet services in the county.
“This report represents the first step in a long-term process to expand affordable, reliable high speed internet service to all Cecil County businesses and residents,” the panel said in releasing its recommendations. And the Cecil County government should “proceed with alacrity in adopting these recommendations.”