MACo Broadband Initiative Bill on the Move

In a unanimous vote, the Senate Finance Committee today voted to advance a MACo Legislative Initiative bill that will help to close Maryland’s persistent digital divide.

SB 824 – Economic Development – Broadband Providers – Joint Trenching and Fee (Building Out Broadband Act of 2021) is a 2021 MACo Legislative Initiative that would help close the digital divide by enhancing incentives and orchestrating opportunities for broadband deployment across the state.

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 lack of reliable broadband is a major barrier to socioeconomic opportunity, health, education, and quality of life.

From MACo’s testimony:

The pandemic has laid bare the urgent need to fully close the digital divide in rural and underserved areas of the state. Access to stable, reliable, and affordable high-speed internet is an essential component of a county’s economic development and the socio-economic advancements of its residents. Residents benefit from increased economic growth, improved labor market access and outcomes, access to better health care, enhanced civic participation, enriched education opportunities, improved quality of life, and overall competitive and vibrant communities.

SB 824 establishes a statewide “dig once” policy to encourage underground fiber deployment in conjunction with road construction projects. This joint trenching program will provide telecommunication companies a more efficient and expedient process for broadband deployment. The bill also authorizes local governments to adopt local policies to accelerate the deployment of high-speed internet to rural and underserved areas, and expresses the intent of the General Assembly that future federal funding decisions prioritize expanding broadband service.

The Abell Foundation’s “Disconnected in Maryland” report, from this year, shows that more than 500,000 Maryland households do not currently subscribe to wireline broadband services. MACo and county government stand ready to work with state policy makers to bridge the divide and provide residents the access they need and deserve.

The bill is expected to be heard on the Senate floor this week.

The House crossfile, HB 1328, was heard in Economic Matters on March 4 and is awaiting a Committee vote.

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 the latest.