Harford Announces Partnership for Rural Broadband

Harford County yesterday announced a partnership with ThinkBig Networks, a private sector internet service provider, to bring broadband service to the County’s rural northern region over the next several years. The project timeline will depend on infrastructure construction and grant funding, which both parties are aggressively pursuing.

This public/private partnership aims to bring affordable, reliable, high-speed internet service to the most unserved and underserved areas of the County. Approximately 2,500 homes in northern Harford County have no access to the internet. Thousands more lack access to high-speed internet. At the same time, the COVID19 pandemic has made internet service even more crucial for distance learning, teleworking, and telemedicine.

Under the agreement, Harford County’s contribution is the use of its Harford Metro Area Network (HMAN), a fiber-optic network that provides broadband access to county agencies, schools, libraries, recreation centers, and public safety sites. The County is using CARES Act funds to expand HMAN. Harford County will allow ThinkBig to connect to, and build off of, HMAN’s unused fiber capacity to more quickly and expansively reach homes and businesses that choose their service. The agreement obligates ThinkBig to charge customers reasonable market rates, comparable to rates available to customers in more densely populated areas of Harford County.

“Expanding our HMAN leverages an asset that the county has already invested in, and brings us closer to the day when rural businesses and families can have equal access to reliable, high-speed internet,” said County Executive Barry Glassman.

According to a County press release:

ThinkBig was selected by Harford County from among the respondents to its Request for Information in June 2020. ThinkBig is based in Chestertown, Maryland, and has a successful presence in Kent and Charles counties, excellent performance reviews, and it pledges to invest.

Phase 1 of this multi-year project for northern Harford County will begin in the northwest, where the greatest number of homes and businesses are unserved. Subsequent phases will be based, in part, on community interest.

“My constituents in northern Harford County are in need of high speed internet and I couldn’t be more excited to see this project move forward,” District D County Councilman Chad Shrodes said. “I encourage everyone to register their interest with ThinkBig, and I thank County Executive Glassman for his persistence in finding a solution.”

A map of the project area, interest registration forms and more information are posted on ThinkBig Networks’ website at http://www.thinkbignets.com/about-thinkbig-harford-county.

Building out broadband access across Maryland is a 2021 MACo Legislative Initiative.

Weaknesses in current broadband internet service occur in every jurisdiction, due to both geography and demography – too many Marylanders have been left on the wrong side of the “digital divide.” The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of broadband connectivity across the state. Students have transitioned to online learning, many professionals have shifted to telework, and applying for unemployment or small business assistance programs often requires access to the internet. Affordable high-speed internet is an essential component of a county’s economic development, while a lack of reliable broadband is a major barrier to socioeconomic opportunity, health, education, and quality of life.

MACo advocates for prioritizing funding to build out broadband access in Maryland, enhancing incentives and orchestrating opportunities for broadband deployment, and leveraging existing resources and infrastructure for broader use.

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for more information.