Kent County's Fiber Future April 18, 2017
BY AMY ROBINSON, SHLB STAFF
“The rural, unspoiled nature of Kent County make it easy to imagine what it must have been like 200 years ago,” the visitor page states. Chestertown, MD even boasts that it is home to a bar George Washington’s visited. While this rural county on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay has preserved its quaint and historic ambience, one addition is very far removed from 200 years ago - a robust fiber network connecting it to a global network.
“We went from having underserved areas to having an international fiber optic presence,” Scott Boone, Kent County’s Director of Information said with pride as we drove through Kent County’s countryside. “Some of our residents literally went from having dial-up/satellite Internet access to gigabit connections in the last few months.”
The SHLB team took a break from the office and road tripped to see this fiber project in action. Kent County recently joined SHLB as a member.
Orange fiber markers poked out by the side of the road as we drove up to the high school.
“These students will have high speed access as part of a unified network throughout the entire Public School system,” Boone said.
Boone’s family has been on the Eastern Shore for generations. He grew up in the picturesque area, travelled the world, and then returned to raise his own kids. But he’s the first to admit that his return is not the norm. More and more young people leave Kent County for college and rarely move back to their hometown.
This is not a unique problem. Rural swathes of the country are subject to the “rural brain drain” phenomenon. Since 2010, 1,300 rural counties in 46 states have lost population (Pew). This mass exodus hurts rural communities’ workforce and long-term viability.
To combat this brain drain, the Kent County Commissioners needed to offer something irresistible – high capacity fiber to enable broadband access even in the county’s rural areas.
The strategy for connecting the county revolved around anchor institutions - schools, libraries, health services, community centers, police stations, firehouses, and other spaces that benefit the community. Boone extended the definition of anchors to build as many fiber points as possible.
“See that shed over there? Fiber. Our animal shelter. Fiber,” Boone pointed out as we drove.
But the success of Kent County’s fiber took a coordinated effort. It took a team of county officials months of planning, and included conducting their own GIS mapping of all the anchor institutions, residences and businesses. Boone compiled an immense amount of data about other fiber projects around the country, basically using his binder of research as a pillow. Officials representing Economic Development, Public Safety, Engineering, Administration, Libraries, and Public Education formed the Broadband Expansion Committee.
While the Broadband Committee helped advocate, the County still had to explain the scope to the residents. “That’s been my biggest lesson,” Boone said. “You need to be better prepared to educate your community.” So they started a social media campaign utilizing Facebook Ads and Google AdWords. “We don’t stop. We keep promoting the county.”
FTS, the dark fiber provider, is building the anchor network using government and private investment funds. FTS was already laying an international fiber cable and a backbone fiber network down the DelMarVa peninsula, so it was in a prime position to extend that fiber deeper into the Kent County community. Boone admits that luck was on their side to complete this project.
While the project started with connecting anchors, the second stage will enable connectivity to the county’s 20,000 residents as well. Because FTS built an “open access” network, additional companies can now build off the backbone. ThinkBig is currently in the process of rolling out “last mile” gigabit service for any home requesting service. This is a perfect example of a Private-Public Partnership model in action.
“That dump over there?,” Boone pointed out as we drove. “Fiber.”
After a day of visiting construction sites, fields, schools, and animal shelters, we headed back to DC. While driving, we began noticing orange markers lining the entire highway, representing fiber threaded throughout the fields. We laughed at the thought of a rural dump with better Internet access than our DC office. Tech in the heartland is a reality and will only grow. And it is made by possible by champions, like Scott Boone, who view schools, libraries, and yes even the town dump, as anchors for their high-tech vision.
To learn more about this project, visit www.fiber.kentcounty.com.