New Maryland county grant tackles the ‘long driveway’ broadband gap

Low return on investment. Lack of access to middle mile infrastructure and backhaul. These are two reasons commonly cited by operators when they explain why some parts of the U.S. remain without access to broadband service today. But there’s another hurdle lurking, especially in rural areas, which prevents some residents from getting connected even if a fixed provider does come to town: a long driveway. Now, Charles County in Maryland is leading the charge to tackle the issue head on.

The county’s work started several years ago, when it established a Rural Broadband Taskforce aimed at closing the connectivity gap there. In 2019, the taskforce hired a consultant to help it develop a Broadband Strategic Plan, which was subsequently approved in early 2020. That plan identified the unserved residents in the county and grouped them into one of three categories: those in contiguous unserved areas (Category 1), those in unserved pockets (Category 2) and locations set so far back from the road that service providers are unwilling to reach them unless the homeowners share the cost (Category 3).

Evelyn Jacobson, the county’s Chief Information Officer, told Fierce homes with long driveways account for about 30% of the approximately 4,800 unserved homes in Charles County. As noted in the Broadband Strategic Plan, however, these “homes are not considered ‘unserved’ under federal and state definitions,” a status which can be immensely frustrating for residents.

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Jacobson said the county has spent the past couple of years securing grants to address locations in Categories 1 and 2. When funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) became available for broadband projects, the county saw an opportunity to tackle the third category, she added.

Now, using the aforementioned ARPA funding, Charles County is offering grants of up to $15,000 to help Category 3 residents get service. Jacobson noted local providers Comcast, Verizon and ThinkBig Networks have all indicated their willingness to participate in the grant program.

But what exactly qualifies as a long driveway? “A driveway that requires a service drop longer than the existing ISP will construct for free,” Jacobson explained. “The service drop is the last part of the installation that connects the home to the network running along the road. ThinkBig and Comcast will build a service drop up to 300 feet for free, and Verizon will build a service drop up to 225 feet for free. Beyond those lengths, the homeowner has to pay.”

A Comcast representative told Fierce the 300-foot specification is outlined in its right of way agreement with the county. The representative added it's unclear whether the $15,000 grant will cover the full cost of deployment in all cases, given costs can vary based on the length of the driveway, geographic obstacles and the type of equipment required to install the drop. However, it's a step in the right direction and the operator is proud to partner with Charles County, the rep added.

"These types of programs we think are a great use of federal, state, local infrastructure funds," the representative said. "We're all for it. More opportunities to extend our network to more people is always going to be something that we're excited about."

Those residents in Category 3 who paid out of pocket for service drops between July 1, 2021 and December 31, 2022 will be eligible for reimbursement if they apply before December 31, 2023. New connections funded through the program must be completed on or before December 30, 2024.