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(Dec. 20, 2019) To cross the digital divide in rural communities, the Worcester County Commissioners agreed during their meeting on Tuesday to send a letter of support for the Rural Broadband for Eastern Shore Act of 2020. 

Much like its predecessor, the REA (Rural Electric Administration), did in the first half of the last century, when it spread access to electricity throughout the countryside, Choptank  Electric Cooperative now proposes to bring internet access to its members.

Kathryn Gordon, county director of economic development, told the commissioners that the 2019 Maryland General Assembly authorized the use of existing electric service easements and right-of-way services to deliver broadband fiber.

“Choptank Electric Cooperative will be introducing a local bill, the Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act of 2020 to the General Assembly in January that will allow their electric cooperative to become a member-regulated cooperative that will eliminate duplicative regulation and costs and allow their members to control their use of assets and staff to deliver broadband efficiently to their homes,” Gordon said.

According to Choptank Electric, 36 percent of Maryland residents, most of whom live on the Eastern Shore, do not have internet service that meets Federal Communication Commission Standards. 

Securing reliable internet services has been on the minds of state and county officials since the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development established the Office of Rural Broadband in 2017.

Brian Jones, Worcester County IT director, introduced the rural broadband feasibility study in November 2018, received bid approval in January 2019 and study approval in February 2019. 

The county expects to see the results of a rural broadband feasibility study, which was begun this summer, by Dec. 31. The goal of the study is to determine if providing broadband services is feasible and where any problematic coverage spots may be.

The county sent a request-of-interest form to the state last month, as the General Assembly is providing $2 million to the Department of Housing and Community Development, Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband to help expand broadband into rural areas. The money will be split among participating counties. 

If accepted, the cooperative can make decisions regarding electric rates and additional offerings to members, most importantly, broadband by a vote of the board of directors and member input. 

It cannot raise or decrease rates without member input and participation. A member regulated cooperative must share information about electric and broadband policies with members and adopt procedures to hear, decide and resolve member complaints. 

The bill includes a provision for the members of the cooperative to revert to full regulation by the Maryland Public Service Commission, if they so choose. 

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