Gigabit County: The Future of Broadband and Its Implications for Kent County

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When Scott Boone, the IT Director for Kent County, speaks at events or attends meetings outside Kent County, he hands out plastic cards that say “Our Gigabit County is Open for Business!” on one side and on the other side show a map of the fiber loops that crisscross the county. The cards also contain a flash drive loaded with detailed information on how to start a business in the county.

Lately, he is giving out lots of these cards, because national organizations and many other rural counties want to know: How did Kent attract the money and the technical talent for a project that seems likely to make Kent the first rural county to provide very high speed internet access—up to a gigabit (1000 megabits) per second—to virtually every home, every school, and every business? How did it happen that Kent County, a relatively small place with less than 20,000 inhabitants, is now served by optical fiber backbones from four different providers—two of which are providing fiber to the home or business. In addition, Kent County is served by four wireless internet service providers that also offer high speed broadband connections for home or business. Few urban areas in the country and virtually no other rural counties have such a wealth of choice—of providers, speeds, and prices.

One answer is strong and sustained political support from the County Commissioners. William Pickrum was instrumental in attracting the county’s first wireless internet service provider back in 2004 and has remained an advocate for broadband services. Ronald Fithian suggested that the county enter the broadband project in a competition that resulted in an award from the Maryland Association of Counties. William A. Short has been active in overseeing the fiber buildout. Equally important, the county’s frugal practices over many years meant that it could afford the project’s $4.5 million cost without raising taxes. In addition, the county has licensed 3 wireless internet providers to place their equipment on county water towers rent free, if they also provide discounted service to certain low-income families with school-age children.

Another answer is vision. Scott Boone and County Administrator Shelley Heller designed the Request for Proposals that launched the project in a way that encouraged ambitious proposals. They and Jamie Williams, the county’s economic development director, believed that better access to broadband was critical for the future of education and healthcare in Kent County as well as for attracting new businesses and creating new jobs. Boone also reserved www.gigcounty.com and other on-line addresses and has designed an ambitious program to market the county’s new digital infrastructure.

A third answer is good timing. FTS Fiber, the winning bidder to the RFP, was planning to build a fiber ring with hundreds of individual optical fibers to connect a major internet exchange point in Ashburn, Virginia to a new undersea fiber link in Virgina Beach. The undersea link and the fiber ring serve clients who are very major users of the internet and wanted an additional route for internet traffic to and from Europe that did not go through New York City. FTS originally planned to build the eastern half of the ring down the Delmarva Peninsula by crossing the Chesapeake Bay below the Bay Bridge, but realized they could cross to Rock Hall and run the fiber through Kent County and the upper Eastern Shore just as well. (It didn’t hurt that Brett Hill, CEO of FTS, has a home on the Eastern Shore and so had a personal interest in bringing better connectivity to the region.) So FTS proposed to re-route its fiber ring and and to install an additional 110 miles of fiber in Kent County connecting 54 county government facilities, as well as to lay fiber to every home and business that requested it.

FTS brought in a retail partner, ThinkBig Networks, to lease the fibers, install customer equipment (optical fiber “routers” that provide in-home or in-office WiFi networks), and provide gigabit internet service. Under the contract, the county pays FTS $4.5 million for connecting its facilities (but in return will get 10 years of free service, dramatically lowering its internet and telecommunications costs). The county will also receive a portion of the fiber lease rentals from ThinkBig or other entities (including other internet service providers) that lease the fiber network.

Gigabit internet (1000 megabits per second) is unbelievably fast in today’s terms. You can download a whole season of your favorite Netflix or Amazon series in a few minutes. That kind of speed is ideal, perhaps even necessary, for what’s coming—streaming video for sports, news, and everything else, still higher definition TV sets that display 8 times as many pixels, virtual reality “tours” of popular destinations or imagined worlds. The global economy is increasingly being shaped by internet platform or cloud-based companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook that don’t make things but rather connect buyers and sellers, or connect people to information, or to each other. Soon banking and other financial services will be delivered the same way—through new and more secure internet platforms called blockchains—and a wide range of healthcare services will also be delivered on-line or by connecting smart, in-home devices to cloud-based algorithms and artificial intelligence diagnostic tools. Education, including Kent County Public Schools, is already moving to individualized, digital learning platforms for which students need to have internet access at home as well as in school.

So Kent County is likely to be uniquely prepared for this sea change in the way we live, learn, and work—if its citizens and businesses take full advantage of the gigabit infrastructure. And that should be easy, because the FTS fiber has stimulated other internet service providers to up their game as well. Atlantic Broadband has rushed to lay fiber to the home in several Kent County neighborhoods, trying to lock up customers before FTS gets there. The company now offers slower speeds (up to 120 megabits), but says that it is already offering gigabit service over its fiber in one town in Connecticut, and expects to eventually offer that level of service on the Eastern Shore as well. Verizon has fiber here as well, although it has yet shown no interest in providing fiber to the home. So does the Maryland Broadband Coalition, which only serves member entities such as Washington College.

There are also four wireless internet service providers active in the county—Bridgemaxx, Delmarva WiFi, Tidewater WiFi, and a new, well-financed entry, Cambio WiFi. They operate from towers—both county towers and commercial structures and even some grain elevators—and typically offer substantially slower speeds, 5 to 25 megabits. However, three of the wireless providers say they can offer customers as much as 100 megabits. (See the Service Providers below for listed speeds and prices.) Wireless links from a tower to a home or business usually can’t be longer than 5-7 miles and work best when there is line of sight (eg, no trees or buildings in the way), but newer technology has improved the ability to penetrate trees and to limit interference. (See theTechnology Primer below.) For customers that think they don’t yet need or can’t afford fiber speeds, wireless connections may be of interest.

There is still another possible tier of service, access over a shared WiFi hotspot. The county could provide such hotspots or license an internet service provider to do so for neighborhoods around each of the 50+ facilities where it has a fiber link: eight school buildings, 11 fire, police, or other public safety facilities, several libraries, municipal office buildings, and more than 20 public works, water treatment facilities, or similar locations. Similar hotspots could be set up around churches or community centers—indeed several churches in Kent County are already doing just that through a program of the Kent County Learning Center aimed at helping students. Hot Spot access could be subsidized (free) or by subscription.

In fact, just such a hotspot or wireless cloud is being planned on a larger scale to resolve the lack of mobile phone or internet coverage in Chestertown—via a partnership between the town, the county, Washington College, and FTS. The hotspot would cover the marina/waterfront area, the downtown business district at least up to Washington College, the entire college campus, and possibly other areas such as the proposed new KRM business park. The hotspot—similar to those found in sports stadiums or modern airports—would use advanced distributed antennas, each backed by fiber, and would provide not only WiFi access but also likely mobile phone connectivity for carriers that decide to participate (negotiations are underway). That means phones would reliably work either over the carrier network or over WiFi and that laptops and tablets would also work everywhere outside in the hotspot and likely in storefronts or restaurants as well. The distributed antennae network would have the capacity to serve large numbers of people—e.g., Tea Party Festival crowds. Of course, hot spots are typically not as secure as unshared internet connections—not the best place to do your internet banking, for example—so businesses and most homes will want their own fiber or wireless link. Nonetheless the hotspot will make Chestertown more connected than many major urban locations.

Just in time for Memorial Day, Cambio Wifi has created a junior version of the WiFi hotspot—centered on Fountain Park—with an antenna on the roof of The Finishing Touch. It’s modest in speed and capacity, up to 5 megabits, but its free, serves a pressing need, and is indicative of the entrepreneurial energy that the  Gigabit County project has unleased.

Implications

It seems obvious that high speed fiber, wireless, and mobile links will improve lifestyles—for residents and visitors. It will also improve the business environment. In one well-documented case, Chattanooga, Tennessee, experienced an economic boom after making fiber and internet access widely available and affordable. It became known as a start-up city, attracted many new businesses and experienced an in-migration of new residents, especially young people. Could Chestertown, and Kent County as a whole, experience a similar renaissance? In a way, it’s already happening. The proposed KRM business park, which will retain at least 300 Dixon Valve jobs for the area in a new headquarters complex and likely create that many more jobs from new businesses, would probably not have happened without the optical fiber network, according to KRM officials.

Moreover, the availability of the FTS fiber loop in the county already has some companies exploring the possibility of creating an internet data center—a server warehouse with thousands of data storage computers hosting cloud-based services—in the Millington Industrial zone. Sitting atop hundreds of optical fibers and close to an undersea link, as well as proximity to several major airports and the Rt. 301 highway, might in fact prove attractive to quite a few internet-dependent businesses. And these are precisely the kind of next-generation, low-impact business that would fit well in Kent County and bring highly-skilled talent to live here, as well as creating jobs for the increasingly tech-savvy students graduating from Kent County schools.

Universal connectivity would benefit many others as well. Consider the artisan/artist community in the county, and suppose that Gallery shows, First Friday events, and the annual studio tour happened on-line as well—on a YouTube channel, for example, and on Facebook, with links to artists’ websites. That way people in Washington, Baltimore, or Philadelphia could also participate virtually and strengthen their link to the county—and artists might sell more of their work.

Libraries in Kent County as elsewhere are becoming digital repositories. Did you know you could check out and download a Kindle book, without having to drive to the library—if you have internet access?  And that such digital library resources are poised to expand dramatically in the future—with instructional videos, interactive learning games, geneaology mapping tools?

The future of the Chestertown Hospital is in doubt, at least as a traditional in-patient facility. But what if it became, in addition, a telemedicine center for consults with remote specialists, a dispatching center for emergency transport via ambulance or helicopter in critical cases, even a hub of home-care nurses that visited new mothers and aging seniors on a regular basis, bringing medicines, mobile diagnostic tools, and a tablet for in-home video-consults with a doctor? What would it mean for people living alone to have a virtual assistant (like Amazon’s Alexa) ask each morning about pain levels, remind about medicines, or monitor for slips and falls and call for help emergency help if needed? The next few years will see a host of smart in-home devices and sophisticated on-line diagnostic tools designed to keep people healthier and out of hospitals or to detect strokes before they happen—making reliable internet access sometimes a matter of life and death.

And what do individualized digital learning platforms—like the ones Kent County Public Schools have already implemented—mean for student achievement, especially with universal student 24/7 access to the platform and other on-line tools from home?  Even without universal access, the results are already showing up with higher rankings in state-wide comparisons. But the next wave of instructional materials will make heavy use of virtual reality tools—to allow students to explore how a heart works, for example, or to understand how galaxies form—that are even more dependent on fast internet access. So it’s clear that broadband access is critical for Kent County’s next generation to succeed, as students prepare for lives in a world where many traditional jobs may not exist.

These and other implications of the Gigabit County will be the subject of other articles in this series. The Spy invites comment under its new Future Focus department, and hopes to further stimulate discussion and engagement via a series of guest lectures or moderated expert panels.

 A Guide to Internet Service Providers in Kent County

Prices and speeds quoted for residential service, based on information from the providers, but you are advised to call them to get a quote for your location and needs or for business service. Some providers offer discounted introductory prices. Install prices can vary.

Fiber

ThinkBig Networks. Unlimited Gigabit service (1000 Megabits) for $99/month over the FTS fiber.  Install $400 (can be spread over 3 years), which includes a sophisticated router. For now, this is the only gigabit provider in the county, offering speeds more than 8 times what any other provider can offer and at a price comparable or even lower than other providers’ high speed service. Mark Wagner, CEO of ThinkBig and an experienced IT professional, suggests that you think of the install fee as an investment that pays off over several years, since you will never need another internet connection. He says the company will be profitable with as few as several thousand customers across the Eastern Shore, that demand is brisk, and that he expects to have 1000 customers hooked up in Kent County alone by the end of the summer. He says the company is committed to the goal of universal access, and will be willing to work with the county to make that happen. www.ThinkBignets.com

Atlantic Broadband. Currently offering 15/60/120 megabits download speeds in Kent County at prices ranging up to $80.99/month for internet services only. The company also offers internet, cable TV, and phone packages. David Isenberg, a Boston-based executive, says the company intends to be competitive, is upgrading their system on the Eastern Shore, and plans eventually to offer gigabit service in Maryland. They recently provided fiber to the home in the Kinards Point, Worton, neighborhood and expect to do that in most new buildouts. www.atlanticbb.com

Wireless

Bridgemaxx. Offering 2/3/6/10 megabits download speeds at prices from $34.95 to $84.95, with installation extra. CEO Jim Conner says that they can provide up to 30 megabits, and that they can also provide phone service, and video service via their partner Direct TV. Bridgemaxx has been active on the Eastern Shore for several years and already has numerous customers. www.bridgemaxx.com

Delmarva WiFi. Offering 5/10/25 megabits download and upload speeds at prices from $64.96 to $109.95/month. Install and customer equipment extra. CEO John Woodfield says that with newer equipment, they can provide speeds up to 100 megabits to line of sight customers. Delmarva has also been active across the Eastern Shore for several years. www.delmarvawifi.com

Cambio WiFi. Offering 8/12/16/25 megabits download speeds at prices ranging from $54.95 to $124.95. Install extra. CEO Steve Kirby says that they can provide speeds as high as 100 megabits. Cambio provides service over its own licensed frequencies to minimize interference. Cambio is a relatively new entrant on the Eastern Shore, launching in Kent County (although they have been serving Tolchester Marina and other customers since 2015), but intends to expand across the Eastern Shore and beyond.  www.cambiowifi.com

Tidewater WiFi. Offering 25 megabits of download for $75/month, with higher levels of usage at prices up to $120/month, activation fee extra. Offers service primarily in the Galena area. www.tidewaterwifi.com

A Technology Primer

Like most things digital, the technologies that bring internet to your home keep getting faster, better, and cheaper. Take optical fibers, for example, which can now carry an internet signal (in the form of light) 20 miles or more before it needs to be boosted or amplified. Installing such fibers (which come wrapped in heavy insulation) is easier now too, with trenching tools or with guided horizontal drills that punch a cable-sized hole 400 feet long (and 4 to 8 feet underground), then pull a bundle of optical fibers through the hole as the drill withdraws. The cable crews installing fiber in Kent County (see pics/video) say they can typically lay 800 feet of fiber per day, sometimes more.

When a fiber reaches your home, it is connected to a device called an optical network terminal, which converts it into a WiFi signal and also provide Ethernet jacks, like a conventional router. Routers, too, have improved; many today offer WiFi networks on two different frequencies to give homeowners more ways to connect their devices. And there are more devices to connect—not only mobile phones, tablets, and computers, but also TVs, electronic gaming terminals, music systems, thermostats, security systems, and other “smart home” tools. Two frequencies allow people to segregate devices that carry sensitive information—like computers used for on-line banking or professional activities—from those that are wide open (your smart thermostat, your children’s Facebook or Snapchat links).

When a wireless internet signal reaches your home, it also is typically captured by an external antenna that connects to a WiFi router in your home. But wireless technology has also improved; some providers (including some in Kent County) now use what is called WiFi over LTE, which is a form of wireless transmission that is used by mobile telecom companies on their licensed frequencies, but can now also be used in the unlicensed WiFi frequencies. WiFi over LTE is said to resist interference better and offer improved penetration through trees, which means better access and higher effective speeds.

Al Hammond holds degrees in Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Stanford University and Harvard University. He is a serial entrepreneur (having founded 5 enterprises) and a prolific writer (having authored or contributed to 16 books and nearly 200 articles). In the 1970s, he helped to edit the international journal Science, and went on to found and edit several national publications, including Science 80/86 (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Issues in Science and Technology (published by the National Academy of Science). He lives in Chestertown, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

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Letters to Editor

  1. 5MB Down, 1MB Up per person

    • Jason Moore says:

      Tidewater wifi apparently has the fastest internet on earth if this article is correct. They also service more then Galena. I think he meant 25 megabyte though.

  2. Johnson says:

    What a great legacy for these County Commissioners to leave. Seems like yesterday this was a pipe dream and now all the hours and tough decisions are about to deliver a pay day that will last for decades. Hats off to all involved.

  3. We need to proceed with caution in embracing new technologies. Some of these are harmful to our health and the environment. We also need to consider what we are getting in exchange for these harmful effects. Are the results really that good for us? American entertainment is overvalued and corrupting. The Internet is a sinkhole of ultimately useless information.

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