A Wave (of Fiber) Crests Across Maryland’s Eastern Shore

The Dover Bridge is the span of infrastructure that crosses the Choptank River into Maryland’s Eastern Shore. But it’s the Choptank Electric Cooperative that’s building a bridge across the digital divide in the rural reaches of the region.

Building on the fiber backbone that connects the co-op's smart grid, the member-owned cooperative began construction of a fiber-to-the-home network (FTTH) last year that will reach all 54,000 of its members spread out across nine counties. Now subscribers are being lit up for service as the co-op continues to extend the network.

Thanks to the passage of the “Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act” in May of 2020, it paved the way for the co-op to create a wholly-owned subsidiary known as Choptank Fiber. Moving quickly, in April of 2021, just two months after network construction began, Sherry Hollingsworth – whose grandfather was the first to get electricity through the co-op back in 1939 – became the first member to get service.

At the ribbon-cutting ceremony outside her home in Denton, a town in Caroline County a little over an hour's drive from the nation's capital, Hollingsworth told The Star Democrat she was “honored” to be Choptank Fiber’s first subscriber because, like many households in and around the Eastern Shore, “we have struggled with our personal service and our business service for many, many years.”

The meaning of the moment was neatly summarized by Jeff Rathell, the co-op’s Chairman of the Board of Directors: 

We have been so successful over the years at delivering electric service to rural residents … Today, broadband service and Internet access have become almost as important as electric service was over 80 years ago. I am pleased that we have found a way to deliver this life-changing service to our members.

High Speed Service, Years Long Process

While the co-op was quick to move forward with its plan to extend fiber connectivity across the region, the legislation that needed to pass to get the project in and off the ground was anything but fast. As noted by State Sen. Addie Eckardt, it took 25 years and multiple legislative bites at the apple before the Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act finally passed the Maryland General Assembly.

And like any large infrastructure project – especially across a large, sparsely populated service area – the network build out is not an overnight process. In Choptank’s case, its service area encompasses 10,000 square miles.

“We are committed to building out to all of our members in 10 years,” Tim McGaha, Choptank Electric Cooperative Vice President of Tech Services, told us when we checked in with Choptank officials last week. “But, our current projects are three-year time frames and we may be able to finish those in two years.”

Currently, Choptank is building out fiber connections from its existing 650 miles of fiber backbone, following a phased approach in six of the nine counties they serve: Caroline, Cecil, Queen Anne's, Somerset, Wicomico, and Worcester Counties. “We didn’t want to just do one county,” McGaha explained, adding that the initial construction costs are being partially funded by an $8 million grant from Maryland’s Office of Rural Broadband, which has since been expanded and re-named the Office of Statewide Broadband.

About 60 percent of the funding for network construction is from grants, with the rest financed by the electric cooperative. In the future, Choptank officials told us, they would like to see a split whereby 90 percent of network construction is paid for with grant funds and the other 10 percent is financed.

Valerie Connelly, Vice President of Government Affairs and Public Relations for Choptank, noted that as of last week they had passed a total of 700 premises. “And keep in mind, we are working in areas where there are less than eight homes per mile,” she added.

McGaha estimated they were “about a third of the way through the grant areas and we are getting calls every week from people in those grant areas. We will be close to being done by the end of the year.”

While Choptank has a long way to go to reach full build-out, co-op officials are heartened by the funding the state has committed to expanding broadband access across Maryland, allocating $400 million through the Office of Statewide Broadband – a portion of which Choptank has applied for to further extend fiber Internet service to its members.

When it’s all said and done, McGaha said, they will have deployed “thousands of miles” of both aerial and underground fiber. And, Connelly added, although building fiber infrastructure in rural areas can be a challenge, “one benefit of doing this as a co-op is that we own the poles and Right-of-Ways.”

Membership Has its Benefits

Another (behind-the-scenes) benefit Choptank Electric Cooperative had going for it was bringing on Mike Malandro in 2019 to serve as CEO. Malandro migrated to Maryland from Virginia where he had previously served as President and CEO of the Prince George Electric Cooperative near Richmond, Virginia. While there, he oversaw the successful launch of a fiber-to-the-home project known as Ruralband.

“When Mike joined the team,” Connelly said, “he had a vision of how we could get it done.”

For his part, Malandro told us, his vision sprung from the realization upon his arrival: “I saw we had 650 miles of fiber backbone for smart grid purposes and I knew we could leverage that for fiber-to-the-home with minimal risk,” especially considering that Atlantic Broadband and Comcast were mostly concentrated on serving only the densely populated areas with limited broadband service in the region being offered by Mediacom and Cox.

Choptank Fiber subscribers where Internet-only service is available can get a 100 Megabit-per-second (Mbps) symmetrical connection for $85/month; 250 Mbps symmetrical service for $99/month; symmetrical gig service for $139/month; and a 2.5 gig package for $279/month, all of which includes equipment.

“Our network is actually 10 gig capable,” McGaha said. And that’s because, “we are building our network to meet future needs versus us trying to catch up and reconstruct to fit rising needs.”

While it’s still far too early to obsess over subscriber take-rates, McGaha said, Choptank is aiming “as high as possible. If we get to 50 percent, we are happy because it makes the model so much better and will help keep rates down and performance up.”

He also noted a key difference between the cooperative (and municipal broadband) approach as compared to the big incumbent providers:

Our goal is to break even. Here the revenue goes right back into the business. Any profits we make turns right back to the membership.

With its first subscribers singing Choptank Fiber’s praises, it shouldn’t be difficult for the fledgling fiber business to continue attracting members because as Choptank CEO Mike Malandro told us:

If you are not connected in today’s day and age you are in big trouble … There’s a lot of things (this network) can parlay into with workforce development, training, getting more economic development, attracting business that may be housed in the DC area to now come to our area. And at the end of the day, our service will be world class.

Watch a video of Choptank constructing its fiber network below.

 

Header image of Dover Bridge over the Choptank River courtesy of RawPixel, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication

Inline image of Choptank Fiber first subscribers Gordon and Sherry Hollingsworth courtesy of Choptank Fiber

Inline image of ongoing network construction in Caroline County courtesy of Choptank Electric Cooperative

Inline image of Choptank Fiber logo courtesy of Choptank Fiber