Talkie and Worcester County officials celebrate the connections of customers in the Pocomoke area in late 2021.

Supply chain issues and inflation have forced Talkie Communications to reevaluate its plan for connecting Worcester County to broadband internet, but officials with the internet service provider are holding to their three-year goal and leaving as little cost as possible on the taxpayer’s end.

“We have several backup plans,” said Andre DeMattia, co-CEO of Talkie. “Originally, we wanted to wire up Worcester for $52 million, but (all costs) increased by 30 percent. The goal is to connect in three years and have the county pay minimal costs.

“We hooked up quite a bit of Pocomoke. We’re now in the process of getting the electricians and construction teams to build up Bishopville and set up a remote office there. We’re hoping to get (a contractor) out there this month to get it started, and then we will start construction possibly in February or March to build up Bishopville.”

Two grant applications – $18 million from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and $2 million from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Neighborhood Connect grant – are awaiting approval and Talkie plans to brief the county on two more grants it wishes to apply during Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.

Delays in when grants are being awarded have made the process go slower than the company has wanted. For instance, federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

 money should be released in about 60 days. But DeMattia remained confident that Talkie can still hold to its three-year plan.

To date, Talkie has won a combined $6.6 million in grants from the state and federal governments.

DeMattia said he anticipates that Talkie will receive the federalgrant, which should be announced in January or February. If they do win it, he also expects the funds to be released about two weeks after the announcement, which will ensure the company gets to work on the Bishopville area “immediately.”

A prior agreed-upon loan from the county to Talkie for $1 million, for building materials in the Bishopville area, may not be necessary if the federal grant is won.

If Talkie does not win the grant, DeMattia mentioned vast funds in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure legislation could offer opportunities for Talkie.

The two grants to be applied for a total up to $45 million – $20 million from a state infrastructure grant and up to $25 million from the Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect grant program.

DeMattia said the company is waiting for commissioner approval on both grants. The state grant will cover areas that the Consolidated Telecommunications Company, a Talkie partner, classified as unserved.

Talkie is still working with that company on identifying how the ReConnect grant funds would be used.

“We’re working with the CTC on that application and commissioners for approval to apply to this grant. Prices on fiber and supplies have increased by 30 percent due to the shortage, late times scheduled for over a year now,” DeMattia said. “This grant will help expedite the installation of the fiber optics … to under three years.”

This story appears in the print edition of the OC Today on Jan. 7, 2022.

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