Allegany built Net service, wants to expand in W. Md.

County is meeting today with two private utilities

July 19, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

The task might have been tougher than bringing the mountain to Muhammad: bringing broadband Internet to the mountain.

But a group of government agencies in Western Maryland's Allegany County has done so by building a wireless communications network.

Now, the agencies are trying to win support from private utility companies such as Verizon Corp. and Allegheny Energy Inc., to expand it to businesses and residents.

In the mid-1990s, Allegany County government officials sought high-speed Internet service from the telephone and cable companies that provide it in more populated areas. Their experience was the same as in many rural communities, and in some inner-city ones: Private providers said they could not justify the cost.

The county of 75,000 residents has been called "Maryland's Switzerland" for its breathtaking vistas - the terrain that makes burying fiber-optic lines to carry voice and data so expensive, perhaps costing $180 million or more.

Officials from four agencies - the county government, school board, public library and the county seat of Cumberland - moved to create a system, using wireless technology, for $5 million. It didn't hurt that they had as an advocate Casper R. Taylor Jr., a county resident and speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates, who could help identify sources of government aid.

"We'll wind up being a small rural county with worldwide connections at competitive prices," said Jeffrey T. Blank, technology coordinator for the county Board of Education.

A meeting is scheduled today at Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort with representatives from government and utility companies such as Verizon Corp. and Allegany Power to discuss expansion of service through Western Maryland.

The county network, called Allconet, now serves only classrooms, libraries and government offices.

In many states, utility companies have fought local governments that wanted to install systems even if the companies showed little interest in providing service. Prodded by lobbyists, 10 states, mostly in the West and Midwest, have limited or outlawed localities from getting into the Internet business.

Many distant towns view the issue as another example of the "digital divide" between haves and have-nots. Often, businesses can pay for "T1" or "DS" lines, or other fast connections, but pay much more than they would in an urban area.

Outside Cumberland, where cable-television supplier Charter Communications provides cable-modem connections to about 1,200 subscribers, most residents and businesses in Allegany are restricted to much slower "dial-up" service. That suffices for many casual Internet users, but local officials say that businesses are less likely to move to a place where they can't get connections quick enough to move large files of data.

"With any leading-edge technology, the urban areas are the first to have access to this stuff. It does take quite a bit longer for some of these technologies to get into rural areas," said Jim Blew, a spokesman for Marconi PLC, a British company that is providing equipment for Allconet and whose wireless technology 90 years ago signaled the distress calls from the Titanic.

Allegany County officials view Internet access as essential to their future, as their predecessors did the placement of railroad stations a century ago and the route of the interstate highway system during the past half-century.

"It's a critical component for us," said Thomas E. Cooley, director of economic development for the county.

"In years past, we had PPG, but it closed. Kelly-Springfield closed," he said, rattling off the names of major - and former - local industrial employers.

The county hopes to attract businesses drawn to the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing and defense contractor Alliant Tech- systems Inc., both nearby in West Virginia, and to a new technology business park in Frostburg. But the area needs modern telecommunications services to do so, Cooley said.

Allegany's network is considered advanced - an invisible, wireless web of eight towers that beam Internet links via radio waves to about 4,000 computers in 90 schools and government buildings.

A second phase of the project has been proposed that would add five more towers throughout the western half of the county to serve businesses. It has secured about half the $5 million in government aid that it needs.

Officials hope to be able to expand the network to serve residents in about two years.

There is no lack of government studies to show the need.

An agency that focuses on developing technology in the state has begun a $75,000 survey with other agencies to determine the Internet usage and needs in the area.

"We just completed the data gathering and it documented without question that Western Maryland, particularly Cumberland, is not adequately served," said Phillip A. Singerman, executive director of the agency, the Maryland Technology Development Corp.

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