Maryland Continues on Long Haul Towards Universal Broadband

September 11 – Being a first-mover is a blessing and a curse. When it comes to state-led broadband initiatives, Maryland has been an early innovator at confronting the long road towards state-wide universal broadband access.

Broadband Census Maryland

This is the 12th of a series of articles surveying the state of broadband, and broadband data, within each of the United States.

September 11 – Being a first-mover is a blessing and a curse. When it comes to state-led broadband initiatives, Maryland has been an early innovator at confronting the long road towards state-wide universal broadband access.

Among the most recent accomplishments for the state was, two months ago, Gov. Martin O’Malley’s approval of a license allowing the Maryland Broadband Cooperative to begin installing broadband fiber up the eastern shore of Maryland and across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

It’s another milestone in a road that is now over a decade long.

In 1998, the Maryland General Assembly created the Maryland Technology Development Corporation (TEDCO) “as a public instrumentality of the state” and tasked it with funding technology-focused programs and initiatives contributing to Maryland’s economic and business development.

By 2002, TEDCO had completed a comprehensive state-wide eReadiness study. It led to TEDCO’s recommendation that Maryland develop a broadband task force to address deficits in broadband connectivity in rural parts of the state. The legislature accepted TEDCO’s recommendation, approving funding for the Task Force for the Development of Broadband in Rural Maryland in 2003.

The task force attempted to divide and conquer Maryland’s broadband deficits. It focused on rural regions in the southern and western parts of the state, as well as the Eastern Shore, and on coordinating efforts among public and private partners on the local level.

From 2004 to 2006, the task force said it helped expand broadband deployment in these regions. It helping out with applications for federal and state loan and grant programs, and investing public funds into the infrastructure necessary for last-mile delivery – or delivery to individual residential customers – by private sector partners.

In 2006, state Sen. E.J. Pipkin, who chaired the task force, supported a new effort by United States Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Gov. O’Malley and others to develop the Maryland Rural Broadband Coordination Board.

By May of 2006, that board was officially established through O’Malley’s approval of Senate Bill 753, which also delivered funding for the Maryland Broadband Cooperative, the member-owned and operated network responsible for insuring that state investments meet the goal of completing last-mile service in cooperation with private sector organizations.

Today, the Maryland Broadband Cooperative continues to provide key investments in digital infrastructure to support consumer- and business-level broadband connectivity. One local government group responsible for facilitating these on the ground investments is the Tri-County Council of Southern Maryland.

Council Executive Director Wayne Clark said that the work of the 30-member Broadband Cooperative is “critical to making all parts of Maryland a part of the national superhighway.”

Maryland’s extensive efforts will likely be faced by other states that set out on the road toward universal broadband service. But Maryland’s long haul may be leading the state closer to its goals.

“We’ve gone as far as we can go with the unregulated free market,” said Del. Tom Hucker, who represents District 20 in Montgomery County. “Now, we as a government have a responsibility to make sure there are not gaps in coverage areas.”

One of the remaining efforts to “fill the gaps” in Maryland centers around legislative initiatives seeking to map out broadband availability and determine exactly where such gaps are. Since 2006, the General Assembly has considered many bills to fund broadband data and mapping projects – but none has passed.

“It’s a relatively complicated issue,” says Del. Hucker. “When you have part-time legislators it’s not uncommon for complex bills to take two or three years to pass.”

Art Brodsky, a communications policy analyst and Maryland constituent who helped craft one of the broadband data bills sponsored by Del. Herman Taylor (District 14, Montgomery County), lamented the failure of the General Assembly to move faster on the issue of broadband data collection.

“It would have been nice if Maryland were a national leader in broadband mapping, but that opportunity went down with the defeat of Del. Herman Taylor’s bill,” he said.

Del. Hucker is confident that Maryland will move forward on broadband mapping. “Broadband will be as important in the next hundred years as the telephone and electricity were over the last hundred.”

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