Shoring Up the Unserved in Talbot County, Maryland

In the heart of Maryland's Eastern Shore – a place Forbes Magazine considers one of the “Top 5 Coolest Towns to Buy A Vacation Home” – a fiber-to-the-home project is making the region an even cooler place to live.

Building on its historical allure and 600 miles of Chesapeake Bay waterfront views, state, county and local utility officials are making a multimillion-dollar investment to transform Talbot County’s half dozen towns (and a handful of other unincorporated communities) 40 miles east of Annapolis into a far more attractive place to live, work, and play. To do that, they are relying on Easton Utilities, the county’s seat long-standing municipal utility, to expand high-speed Internet access into the most rural reaches of the region.

In March, the Talbot County Council unanimously approved allocating $1.75 million of its American Rescue Plan Act funds to help bring fiber Internet connectivity to the hardest-to-reach parts of the county. That funding comes on the heels of Easton Utilities being awarded federal and state grant funds totaling $26 million, with the bulk of that going toward a fiber network expansion project known as Connect Talbot, while a portion is being used to upgrade its existing hybrid fiber-coax system.

With construction crews now working to extend Easton Utilities fiber backbone further out into the county, the utilities’ subsidiary – Easton Velocity – is already offering service to over 100 new subscribers.

When we checked in with Easton Utilities this week, Marketing and Communications Manager Kelly Simonsen told us the expansion project will ultimately pass over 3,600 premises and cover 100 percent of Talbot County’s unserved areas. That work is expected to be complete sometime in 2026.

Municipal Utility Well Positioned to Bridge County’s Digital Divide

It makes sense that the state and county (est. population 37,000) would look to Easton Utilities to address the region’s most challenging connectivity needs. The Town of Easton (the county seat) was the first and only municipality in Maryland to own and operate all of its utilities – beginning with electric, water, and wastewater before expanding over the years into natural gas, cable television, and Internet service.

When it comes to Internet connectivity, “Easton Utilities understands (that) the ability to provide broadband access to residents and businesses with insufficient service in Talbot County positively impacts numerous quality of life issues including employment, healthcare, education, and social connections and helps drive economic prosperity,” Simonsen added.

And while access to broadband was important before the onset of the pandemic, its essential nature “was heightened in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived and schools entered a virtual teaching environment while homes turned into workplaces with employees working remotely. Providing a network to improve the quality and availability of high-speed data services to as many businesses and residents as possible became critical.”

Piecing Together the Financing

Having long provided essential utility services in Easton, the municipal utility first ventured into the cable business back in 1984, operating one of the few municipally-owned cable systems in the country. In 1998, Easton Utilities began offering high-speed Internet service and eventually combined its cable and Internet service operations under a single telecommunications utility to form Easton Velocity, which is currently serving 4,600 cable and 8,700 Internet subscribers, according to Simonsen.

But, it wasn’t until 2017 when the digital landscape began to shift in favor of future-proof fiber connectivity. That was the year the Maryland General Assembly established the Task Force on Rural Internet, Broadband, Wireless and Cellular Service to help address broadband inequities on the Eastern Shore and in other rural parts of the state.

Gov. Larry Hogan appointed Easton Utilities President and CEO Hugh E. Grunden to serve on the task force, which happened to coincide with the county awarding Easton Utilities with a contract to deliver broadband service to the county’s unserved regions.

Then, in December of 2018, the utility was awarded a $13.1 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect program to expand service into most of Talbot County, Simonsen recounted. That set the table for network construction to get underway in December of 2021. Earlier this year, Easton Utilities was awarded an additional $3.6 million grant from the state’s Connect Maryland initiative to further extend the network to the 8 percent of Talbot County residents who could not be reached by the USDA grant.

The $1.75 million in Rescue Plan funds most recently allocated by the county, Simonsen said, will relieve “the burden of the initially planned customer contribution, which has been eliminated for the majority of future customers.”

Wave of Fiber Crests Across Eastern Shore in Easton and Elsewhere

As Easton Utilities expands into the more rural parts of the county, it is also converting its current subscriber base in Easton to fiber thanks to the town opting to use $5 million of its Rescue Plan funds to help pay for it. Easton Utilities is using $10 million of its own funds to cover the rest of the estimated cost.

Subscribers have a choice of six different service tiers: Easton Velocity’s “value” package (100/5 Megabits per second) is $48/month; the “ultimate” tier (500/15 Mbps) is $100/month and the “extreme” gig speed service is $150/month.

While most fiber networks offer symmetrical speeds, Easton Velocity’s service tiers reflect the fact that they have yet to convert the bulk of their subscribers to fiber. Still, Simonsen said, for those subscribers who will soon get fiber, or the 108 subscribers who already have a new fiber connection, symmetrical speeds are available upon request.

“It has taken a partnership at the federal, state, and local level (combined with Easton Utilities own money as part of the mix) to gather the funding required to complete this transformational project,” Simonsen added.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the state, locally-controlled publicly-owned projects are taking off. The Choptank Electric Cooperative, which also serves rural counties in the Eastern Shore and who recently hauled in close to $20 million state grant funding, is in the process of building a fiber-to-the-home network that will reach all 54,000 of its members spread out across nine counties, as we reported here.

And while Maryland is committing funds to expand broadband in rural parts of the state, unlike a number of other states whose broadband expansion initiatives are almost exclusively focused on rural projects, Maryland is also looking to address the digital divide in its urban centers such as Baltimore where affordability is a major barrier to broadband access.

Header image of downtown Easton courtesy of Flickr user David Steele, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Inline map of Talbot County courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Inline pic of Route 404 courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)