ANNAPOLIS — Richard Thompson runs a business designing newspaper pages from his Calvert County home, but he can’t do all his work there.
Recently, he had to to take his laptop to the library three miles up the road, download a program he needed, save it to a flash drive and install it on his home computer.
This isn’t out of the ordinary for Thompson, who has to go to the library whenever he needs to upload or download large files because he doesn’t have broadband Internet at home.
“I get very close acquaintance with the little circle that goes around and around along with the word ‘connecting’,” he said.
Hundreds of Thousands in Maryland Lack Broadband Access
In Maryland, the state the National Security Agency calls home, 4 percent of the population, around 260,000 people, don’t have access to wired Internet. The percentage is higher in rural areas of the state, where 13 percent of residents, or 95,000 people, don’t have access to “Fixed Advanced Telecommunications Capability,” according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Wired Internet is either fiber, cable or DSL, a Digital Subscriber Line. Without wired service, people looking to get online have to rely on satellite Internet, which can be unreliable in bad weather, or, more often, they use wireless Internet hotspots.
Wireless Internet can be both expensive and limiting, because it’s metered. Users only get a certain amount of Internet per month, and overage charges can be exorbitant, up to $200 per month for 4g wireless internet, which doesn’t include charges for using more than 20 gigabytes.
Thomas Thompson, Richard Thompson’s son, teaches engineering and computer science at Westlake High School in Waldorf.
At home in Prince Frederick, he pays $200 a month for 4g wireless Internet, not counting the other $200 he spends each month on service for his family’s landline, two cell phones and one iPad.
Each month, he gets an allowance of 20 gigabytes, which he says “slows down to a crawl” if there are many people on their phones at once or if something, like buildings or trees, get between him and the cell tower that powers his Internet.
Because he can’t afford to spend precious bandwidth on downloading his students’ design projects to grade at home, he often spends hours at the school, after classes, grading them.
For Thomas Thompson and his colleagues, watching a clip to show in class or uploading materials means making a careful calculation about what their home Internet can bear.
“It’s something you end up avoiding and not doing from home,” he said. “You stay at work until you get it done or you can’t stand to be there any more.”
It was worse when Thomas Thompson was working on his master’s degree online in information technology from University of Maryland University College, when downloading journal articles and working on projects meant staying at school until 7 or 8 p.m.
It’s a struggle Nick Ersoy knows well. Ersoy, a sophomore at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, commutes to campus from his home in Calvert County. Though his school has Wi-Fi on campus, his community does not.
“Schoolwork has a due date regardless of if you’re on campus,” he said.
Having metered, wireless Internet means going without Netflix, YouTube and streamed music. His family carefully monitors how much Internet they use, so most streaming is out of the question.
Ersoy’s father, Javit Ersoy, says he pays “hundreds of dollars” per month for a 30 gigabyte Verizon Fusion plan that isn’t enough for his business and a family of five, so he pays for a second plan from another carrier as well.
Technology Gap Continues as Copper Phone Lines Degrade
In the more populated areas of Queen Anne’s County, like Kent Island, where 50 percent of the population lives, residents can subscribe to wired Atlantic Broadband.
The problem is in the rural areas of Queen Anne’s, which include a lot of unincorporated towns where people mostly only have access to metered options, according to Megan DelGaudio, information technology manager for the county.
“It’s a financial strain for people who have to use metered devices,” she said. “It’s holding back some (residents) either because of the expense of what they’re paying for it, or not really having any access to it at all.”
The FCC doesn’t consider wireless Internet a viable alternative to broadband.
“Customers that are dependent solely on mobile broadband are significantly more likely to exceed their monthly allowances, causing them to incur additional fees or forgo use of the Internet,” the federal agency reported in January.
The report warns that people without Internet access have difficulty accessing health information and job opportunities, which puts them at a “significant disadvantage.”
Verizon is a public utility that manages copper wires laid down for landlines many years ago. It can choose to offer DSL service to people over these wires.
Delegate Mark Fisher, R-Calvert, submitted a bill that would require Verizon to maintain those copper lines and offer DSL service over them.
Under Fisher’s proposal, which never made it out of a state House committee, Verizon could contract out to a third party to provide the DSL over Verizon’s lines, or just pay into Maryland’s Rural Broadband Access Fund for the state to provide the DSL.
The Rural Broadband Access Fund was created in 2009 to establish broadband in underserved areas of the state, and has had inconsistent funding since then.
DSL isn’t perfect, and it isn’t the newest technology. Coaxial cable has been around since the 1980s, and Verizon has been offering FiOs, fiber optic Internet, since 2005.
DSL also operates on an aging infrastructure. The copper wires that are used for DSL were put down for landlines, which customers are abandoning in favor of cell phones. This means that the copper wires don’t always get the service they may need.
“If you ask anyone who…still has a wired, old-time home phone, they’ll tell you it’s degrading on a monthly basis because it’s not being maintained,” Fisher said.
It’s not an ideal solution, especially for service providers like Comcast.
“DSL is a completely outdated technology,” said Sean Looney, the vice president of government affairs for Comcast. “It may be a Band-Aid solution in the short term.”
But fiber isn’t a viable alternative for Comcast either, Looney said.
“Comcast would love to serve 100 percent of the residents of the state of Maryland, but there are some locations that are just not cost-effective (for fiber lines),” Looney said.
Still, for some residents, out-of-date technology is better than no Internet access at all.
“If we can’t be in the 21st century, at least get us to the last part of the 20th,” said Richard Thompson, who turns his Internet off most of the day so he doesn’t rack up data charges.
Even in places that do have options for cable or FiOs, Fisher said, seniors and low-income families might want DSL as a cheaper alternative to pricey Internet plans.
‘Dark Fiber’ a Gateway to Broadband
In Kent County, another solution is underway to bring internet to largely underserved areas.
Over the next two years, a telecommunications company called FTS will put down fiber lines in Kent County. Kent County will pay around $5 million and FTS will pay for the rest of the $20 million project.
The reason FTS can lay fiber in less population-dense areas is because they provide “dark fiber,” as opposed to the “light fiber” that outfits like Verizon FiOS provides.
Unlike Verizon, FTS doesn’t “light” the fiber with Internet access, it only lays the fiber and leases it to an internet service provider.
There is a deal in place with Think Big Networks, an Internet service provider, but other ISPs will be able to lease the fiber as well, according to Brett Hill, the CEO of FTS.
Hill said his company can afford to lay fiber where bigger companies can’t because he views the fiber as a long-term investment.
“We find in the rural areas, there is easier and less expensive construction than we’d find in an urban area,” Hill said. “Looking at the county as a whole, we’re able to balance the more dense areas with the more sparse areas.”
FTS will start connecting 54 Kent County government locations, and by late 2017 or early 2018, Hill said, residents will have Internet in their homes.
County Commissioner Bill Short said providing fiber will have a wide-ranging economic impact.
“It’s going to do incredible things for Kent County,” Short said.
Lack of Broadband Affects Property Values, Farmers’ Information
Slow or unreliable Internet can curb home sales in rural parts of the state.
Kendra McCourt, a real estate agent in Charles County, said the first question buyers often ask her is whether the property has Internet access.
She said people are attracted to new construction in Hughesville or Bryant Town, where they can get large homes and an acre of land. But when they find out that they’ll only have access to satellite Internet, they leave.
“If you can’t find them something, they’ll jump over the bridge and go to Virginia,” McCourt said. “I’m not licensed in Virginia, so I lose the sale.”
She had to push one couple who needed to work from home to Indian Head, 25 miles from their preferred area, so they could have Comcast.
She said her customers are faced with a choice:
“Do I go with better service or do I go where there’s a house that’s better for me?”
Often, they’re choosing Internet access, which pulls them away from rural areas.
“There have been times where we have had buyers who would have bought but didn’t,” said Paula Reeder a real estate agent in Chestertown. “We’ve had people change their focus to other areas.”
Reeder said the expanded Internet in Kent County will attract both residential buyers and businesses that have been reluctant to move in.
In a county where 92 percent of the land is used for farming, the agriculture sector is suffering from a lack of access too, Short said.
Unreliable Internet most adversely affects farmers trying to improve their growing operation by incorporating state-of-the-art technology, according to Jarrod Miller, an agriculture agent with the University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Miller works in Somerset County, and said it seems that Internet access is harder to come by in Maryland’s lower shore.
“If we’re having training sessions or free webinars online you can watch, that could affect people that want to learn more,” he said. “…Internet access effects growers when they can’t get access to updated information.”
“I also see farmers struggling in more rural areas because many of their licensing and record-keeping things are all Web-based now, as opposed to paper-based,” said Shannon Dill, an agriculture agent for Talbot County.
Though Kent may be seeing new opportunities for Internet soon, it does little to help Richard Thompson in Calvert County. He’ll continue to go to the library and use software on his devices on “metered mode” to preserve his limited data.
“There isn’t a whole lot that I can do,” Richard Thompson said. “For right now, it’s status quo.”
*an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the sponsor of the bill as Mike Fisher. His name is Mark Fisher.