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Rural broadband could be getting some needed upgrades in Maryland, thanks to a combination of more funding, more attention, more options and a generous boost of technology from an unlikely source.

That’s the consensus of several speakers on a LEAD Maryland Alumni workshop webinar held May 12.

Dependable and fast broadband — that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg — is a consistent concern of many in rural communities. It’s needed for getting the most out of precision ag equipment, and for work and school at home.

“We’re really hopeful we can make a real dent in rural broadband access in the next couple of years,” said Charlotte Davis of the Rural Maryland Council. She described Maryland’s broadband as “Swiss cheese,” with high connection in urban areas and spotty service in rural areas.

She said most people she speaks with have service, but it may not be reliable or fast and it often costs more than they’d like.

About 36% of Maryland households lack broadband access that meets minimum Federal Communications Commission standards. That mark is slightly better than the national average of about 39-40%, she said.

Two Paths to Better Broadband

She and other speakers are optimistic for several reasons. First, Maryland’s 2022 budget includes $300 million for broadband adoption, affordability and connectivity.

Second, SpaceX is busy launching a satellite system, called Starlink, that could offer a new way to get online.

Some 60 satellites were launched on May 8. SpaceX has already launched about 1,400 satellites and plans to hit 12,000, according to Bill Schroedel of MidAtlantic Farm Credit.

The goal for the system is to have speed four times faster than 4G, he said.

When Starlink service becomes available, Schroedel doesn’t expect it to be cheap. But it may be less susceptible to disruptions from severe weather than on-the-ground internet service is.

“When you don’t have any other options, I think this is going to be a good one,” Schroedel said.

The Starlink system is supposed to be very easy to operate and is designed to allow the satellites to communicate with each other and largely disintegrate upon re-entry to avoid debris issues.

“The instructions are to point it at the sky and plug it in, or plug it in and point it at the sky. The system doesn’t care,” Schroedel said.

Recent state law changes could also expand access. One in Maryland will allow rural electric co-ops to use existing infrastructure for broadband, said Matt Teffeau, government affairs manager at Choptank Electric Cooperative.

“We’ve been hearing for decades about the need for high-speed internet,” he said.

Maryland residents actually have a number of options, although they vary widely in cost, speed and dependability, Davis said. Broadbandnow.com tracks these options.

For people who can’t afford internet, she said monthly assistance may be available if you meet income requirements. More information is available at Getemergencybroadband.org

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