GigaBit County: An Update on the Kent County Fiber Network

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The optical fiber network spanning Kent County—which will enable gigabit (1000 megabit) internet access to every County facility and to any home or business that wants it—is nearly complete. Despite rumors to the contrary, the fiber buildout is on schedule and on budget, according to FTS President Adam Noll. In fact, virtually the only part of the backbone network that remains to be built are the fibers serving the towns of Chestertown and Rock Hall. Noll says that construction of Rock Hall will begin in the next 2 weeks, now that plans of the existing underground utilities have been found.

Meanwhile, the company hooking up individual homes and businesses to the fiber and providing high speed internet access, Think Big Networks, reports that it is already providing service to more than 100 customers, including Dixon Valve and La Motte—the County’s largest businesses—and has many more ready to install. Mark Wagner, CEO of Think Big, says that progress has been slower than he hoped, but that it is steady. He sees no reason that they can’t connect any Kent County residence.

The fiber installation in Chestertown has been delayed because Delmarva Power, which owns the above-ground power poles, has demanded a price that FTS considers way above market rate and refuses to pay. Delmarva Power can demand such fees because FTS is not a regulated carrier in the state of Maryland (it is in other states), but Noll says one solution is for FTS to apply for regulated status, which would guarantee access to the poles. Another possible solution is to use micro-trenching techniques to put the fiber underground. In any event, Noll says that Chestertown will soon get fiber too, one way or another.

One cause of the rumors—and a recent pause in the fiber buildout—was a management reorganization at FTS, which resulted in Noll becoming president and taking charge of day-to-day operations. But the buildout is not at risk; in fact, FTS’s prospects are much larger than Kent County and are best understood in terms of that larger context.

The Kent County fiber network is just the first of what FTS hopes will become a major business connecting rural counties—in Maryland and Virgina to start with. Central to that plan is the company’s planned fiber ring connecting a new undersea cable that comes ashore in Virginia Beach to the major internet hub in Ashburn, Virginia. The ring—one arm through Virginia and the other through Maryland’s Eastern Shore—would contain hundreds of fibers, enabling County governments, large internet data centers and other companies, and residential internet providers to access or provide high speed internet.

The new undersea cable connects Bilbao, Spain to Virginia Beach and provides an alternative to cables that go through New York City (and whose vulnerability was demonstrated by superstorm Sandy).  The cable is being built by Microsoft, Facebook, and the Spanish company Telefonica and will have the highest capacity of any undersea cable yet, capable of transmitting 16o terabits per second (roughly the same as 71 million high definition movies every second).  It is expected to begin operation in 2018, and its presence will transform the entire region, as well as underlie the business case for the FTS ring. The ring, in turn, will be the main revenue source for FTS, but it is what enables the County networks, where the financial return is slower.

For Kent County, says Noll, access via the FTS ring both to the internet hub at Ashburn and to Europe creates a huge opportunity to attract internet-based businesses and young, internet-savvy families.  And at least for now, Kent County is unique on the Eastern Shore in having that opportunity. FTS was negotiating a similar contract with Queen Anne’s County, but would face higher costs per foot of fiber installed (it’s a much larger county). Queen Anne was not willing to pay a higher price, and they additionally demanded that FTS provide a bond to guarantee completion. Noll says that it simply did not make business sense, and so FTS walked away; it will instead focus on building its larger ring and exploring opportunities in some Virginia counties.

In summary, FTS is a major internet infrastructure company that is currently building a high-speed fiber ring through Virginia and Maryland, that conveniently passes through Kent County.  Think Big is the local company that connects local businesses and residences to this high-speed fiber network.  This provides a wonderful opportunity for Kent County. The completed network may open the doors to economic development unlike any the county has experienced in living memory.

 

Telemedicine, Virtual Health Coaches, and Other Wonders: The Future of Health in Kent County, Part 1

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UM Shore Regional Health Center – Chestertown

Small rural hospitals are an endangered species everywhere in the U.S. In Kent County, an intense, citizen-led campaign to save the Chestertown hospital has made progress, but—contrary to recent press reports—the hospital’s fate is still uncertain. Shore Regional Health, part of the University of Maryland Medical  System that provides healthcare to 5 mid-shore counties and which owns and operates the Chestertown facility, has said it would like to maintain in-patient services in Chestertown after 2022, as part of a broader plan to upgrade healthcare on the Eastern Shore.  But doing so will be contingent on legislative or regulatory changes to establish a new reimbursement model for vulnerable rural populations. Whether such legislation is passed is likely to depend on recommendations in the upcoming report of the Maryland Rural Health Study, due this September.  Watch this space for an in-depth report when the recommendations are released.

But the future of the hospital—as a full in-patient facility or as a standalone medical facility with more limited services—is only one of the factors that are likely to shape healthcare in the county in coming years. Moreover, a just-released nationwide assessment of the quality of health—county by county within each state—finds that Kent County has lots of room for improvement. It ranks only 18th (out of 24 Maryland counties) in health outcomes, far behind Talbot (5th) and Queen Annes (7th), and only barely ahead of Caroline and Dorchester.

Healthcare is changing rapidly, driven by both economic pressures (healthcare expenditures make up nearly 20% of the U.S. economy, far above all other industrial countries) and by new technology.  Shore Health’s strategic plan for the Eastern Shore deals with both aspects, but focuses on improving access to care, while also implementing services that can help keep people out of hospitals. Here we profile some technologies and other innovations likely to impact our healthcare in one form or another in coming years, drawing on both local and national examples.

Transport. A big unmet need in Kent County, as in most rural areas, is transport to get people to care.  That could take the form of local transport—to see a doctor, then pick up medicines at a drugstore—or could mean emergency transport by van or helicopter to a distant hospital. One model for local transport could be a kind of “Uber for healthcare” service that would allow people without cars or who can’t safely drive to arrange pickup and transport when they need it with just a phone call or an app. Potentially, a similar service—private but subsidized, or run by a healthcare system or insurer—could also provide transport services to regional hospitals. Will any of these happen? Such services are being started or are under discussion in a few places already, but whether they happen here may depend on local initiatives and some state financing.

Telemedicine and Telehealth. Under the best of circumstances, however, it’s a hassle to drive across the bridge to consult a surgeon or a specialist not found on the Eastern Shore. Suppose instead you could talk to them over a video link from a local facility or, eventually, even from home? As it happens, Shore Regional Health is already gearing up for telemedicine services on the Eastern Shore, in part under a grant from the Maryland Health Care Commission. In April the first patient, a 22-month old boy brought to the emergency room at the Easton Hospital, was linked in minutes to a specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center in downtown Baltimore—resulting in a diagnosis, immediate treatment, and referrals for followup. “Bridging the gap between the eastern and western shores is a wonderful opportunity that this technology has given us,” says Marc T. Zubrow, MD, vice president of telemedicine for the University of Maryland Medical System. “We will continue to enhance and expand the telemedicine capabilities [to] allow patients to receive the expert care they need without having to leave their local communities and support systems.”

Telehealth refers to broader, non-emergency services at a distance, linking patients at home to doctors or nurses via voice or video or data links. A patient with high blood pressure at risk for stroke, for example, might periodically measure his or her blood pressure at home with a device that transmits the data to be screened automatically by an algorithm and checked periodically by a nurse. Many wearable or in-home sensors capable of monitoring chronic health conditions are now available. Telehealth calls or data streams can also record physical exercise, help patients to improve their nutrition, help a mother decide whether her baby’s fever is high enough to need a doctor’s care, or address other health concerns. The savings in costs and peace of mind could be substantial, and sometimes life-saving.

In-home Care. Some health conditions call for personal contact by a nurse, physical therapist, or health coach. Increasingly, taking care to the patient at home is not only less expensive than institution-based care, but sometimes far more effective—as well as overcoming the necessity to travel and the tendency to put off seeking care.  Surgical aftercare through home visits is now common, in-home infusions or dialysis or massage therapy constitute a growing trend.  Regular visits by a nurse or a health coach, especially for seniors with chronic conditions or for those struggling with opioid and other addictions, are being tested or considered in many places, and there is some evidence that such visits are more effective in helping people adopt healthy behaviors than care in an institutional setting—as well as less expensive. Assistance with non-medical tasks of daily living that are important to maintaining health are now often provided by volunteers, but increasingly such wellness services are being viewed as a part of basic healthcare. In one instance in California, simply inspecting homes of seniors and installing grab bars or stair railings or replacing loose rugs cut the number of falls (and the resulting hospital stays) in half.

The Amazon Dot, a smaller version of the Amazon Echo, can help with daily tasks, make phone calls, answer questions, even remind a person to take medication at a certain time.

A Virtual Health Coach. Millions of people now have an Amazon Echo and its voice-driven intelligent assistant, Alexa, that they use to order new supplies, turn on lights, or play music—just by talking to it.  Now Alexa (and similar voice-based systems from Google and Apple) are starting to be used in healthcare. Alexa can answer questions about your conditions or symptoms or an upcoming doctor’s appointment, remind you to take medicines or order refills, or provide updates on vital signs or pain levels to a remote nurse—all without touching a computer. If you fall, Alexa can call the ambulance. For patients with limited eye sight or who are bed-ridden, Alexa can become a constant companion and a vital link to assistance.

Expert Assistance. Increasingly, large organizations are using artificial intelligence tools to mine large datasets and “learn” how to do things more effectively. So as voice-driven systems interact with millions of patients, asking them about their symptoms—and that data is coupled to the clinical signals provided by in-home sensors for blood pressure, blood sugar, fever, etc.—it’s not very far fetched to imagine that IBM’s Watson or other AI systems may be able to diagnose many health conditions as well as even the most expert doctors—and enable earlier diagnosis and treatment—all without leaving home.

If such things seem hard to imagine, remember that Kent County will soon have the essential infrastructure—near universal access to fast internet connectivity.  Keeping in-patient services at the hospital would be important (and might take some lobbying with lawmakers in Annapolis).  But in the long run, improved access to care through the new tools and services described above, especially for vulnerable populations, may be even more important for the future of health than what kind of local health facility we have.

The Amazon Echo with “Alexa,” your new personal – and maybe even healthcare – assistant.

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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.

Growing Green: A New Hi-Tech Start-Up in Kent County by Al Hammond

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Consumers in Kent County have begun to see a new, locally grown type of lettuce in food stores and on their plates at local restaurants. Notable for its attractive appearance, good taste, and lack of spoilage, what’s really different is how it’s grown—by a hi-tech process known as hydroponics. That means it’s grown not in soil but in plastic trays through which water and nutrients flow, inside a climate-controlled, computer-monitored greenhouse. The lettuce is consequently pesticide-free. The process yields a new crop every 6 weeks, but with staggered start times for different trays, so that fresh product is harvested every day, even in winter.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 8.22.48 AMThis new crop comes from Red Acres Hydroponics, a start-up venture based in Worton, on the grounds of a family-owned farm that also produces grain, hay, and straw by traditional farming methods. But hydroponics is hardly traditional and indeed may be the future of farming.

For one thing, crops grown with hydroponics typically use only 1/20th as much water, about 1/4th as much land, and no pesticides, compared to traditional agriculture, and they don’t require big fossil-fueled tractors or harvesters: the process is very environmentally-friendly. For another, hydroponic crops often have higher nutritional content, because their nutrient intake (more than a dozen different minerals) and the levels of carbon dioxide (which is “oxygen” for plants) in the greenhouse are continuously monitored and adjusted for optimum plant growth by the computerized system. So hydroponic crops get a checkmark is the “good for your health” column as well. And for Kent County customers, the produce is extremely fresh—Red Acres Hydroponics ships to restaurants and food stores several times each week (daily when needed). They also sell direct to consumers at their facility at Red Acre Farm next to the Kent County High School.

So how did such a novel venture take root in Kent County? Therein lies a human story of coincidence and entrepreneurship straight out of Silicon Valley. The founding team consists of Bryan Williams, a hard-working farmer whose family has owned and run Red Acres Farm for over a century; Liza Goetz, who is an award-winning teacher of agriculture and science at Kent County High School (she was chosen as Kent County Teacher of the Year for 2015); and Billy Wessel, who also has extensive farming and business experience. Last winter, Bryan’s wife Tracey, who is the principal at Kent County High School and thus Liza’s boss, was looking for a way to put some large potted plants inside during the cold season, and asked Liza if she could store them in the school’s little teaching greenhouse. When Bryan delivered them for her (they were quite heavy), he bumped into a small demonstration hydroponic system that Liza had set up for teaching purposes, and he asked, what’s that? So, never hesitant to teach, Liza explained. Then a few weeks later Brian and Tracey attended a dinner and happened to be seated at a table with a man from the Farm Bureau. Just making conversation, Bryan asked, what’s new in farming these days? “Hydroponics,” the farm expert said, and went on to explain why it’s going to be big. So on the way home, Bryan asked Tracey for Liza’s phone number, called her, and started what became an intensive process of research and planning that soon engaged Billy as well, and Dr. Joseph Bauer, a professor of business development at Washington College (and not coincidentally Liza’s father), and lots of other advisors and friends (many of whom told the team flat out “You’re crazy to do this”). But the team eventually convinced themselves that starting a new venture might be risky, but it was not crazy—rather a real opportunity too good to pass up—and decided, “It’s a go.”

In typical Silicon Valley fashion, the launch happened (and is still happening) with the team working nights and weekends while retaining their day jobs—Bryan is still running his farm, Liza is teaching full-time at the high school, Billy is volunteering his time. Bryan obtained a loan, and the facility was built last summer, adjacent to an existing barn. It consists of a huge plastic tent stretched over a series of steel hoops and then filled with the growing trays, carefully sloped so that the water and nutrients flow from one end to the other. (See photos.) Hooked up to the tent is a nutrient feed tank, air circulation, and climate control equipment, a carbon dioxide generator, and a sophisticated computer brain. Production started in October, with the team giving away samples to prospective customers. But as the team found its feet and gained confidence in their ability to manage the hydroponic process—it looks simple but is an incredibly complex, data-driven operation—sales have ramped up rapidly. Five months on, their facility is nearing its full production capacity, and the team is already starting to talk about when, rather than if, they will build a second unit. Moreover, from a business perspective, the venture has already crossed a magic line that took Amazon and Google years to reach—it’s cashflow positive, although it’s still getting quite a bit of volunteer help—Liza’s daughter Lizzy, Bryan’s daughter Rachel and son B (for Bryan), who are often onsite starting new plants in the nursery or helping with harvesting, as well as Bryan’s mom and partner in the farm Miss Sis (who keeps the books and makes snacks for the volunteer team).

Red Acres Hydroponics production facility near Kent County High School in Worton.

Red Acres Hydroponics production facility near Kent County High School in Worton. It looks bucolic and simple—just lettuce growing in trays. But to make it work requires minute-to-minute monitoring of nutrient concentrations in the feed water and regular adjustments in carbon dioxide levels.

So far, so good. But it’s a fair question to ask of any new venture: Is this a flash in the pan, or something that could be significant for Kent County’s economic future? The customer feedback is excellent. Some of their restaurant customers have dropped their earlier suppliers for lettuce, most of whom ship from Florida or Arizona, because they found they had to throw away too much-spoiled produce. Others have told the team they value not only the quality of Red Acre Hydroponics lettuce (and the spices they now grow too), but, even more, the ability to call up this local business and say, “Can you get me three dozen heads before tonight?” The team also finds that individual consumers, as well as getting fresh produce in winter, really like the idea of supporting a local business. They are brainstorming new categories of customers, beginning to think about broadening their geographic reach to other parts of the upper eastern shore, getting more systematic about marketing and distribution. They will be creating full- and part-time paid jobs as they hire permanent staff. Just how big the venture can grow is uncertain, but it seems likely to become a significant local business at the least.

More importantly, if such a hi-tech green business can thrive here, it might help Kent County’s reputation as a place to do business, as a source of branded produce very much aligned with the national trend toward local, healthy foods, or as an environmentally conscious community. Might more such businesses make the county an attractive place to live for health conscious families? Might the success of one hi-tech startup attract others—especially given the prospect of good internet connectivity across the county? Might an incubator for new businesses being discussed at Washington College—one that encouraged and helped other small startups take root and flourish here—begin to generate real momentum? It certainly can’t hurt. Stay tuned, and pass the salad dressing.

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 Worton, Maryland and Washington, D.C.