Shore gets high-speed Web service

Initiative by state, Verizon extends broadband to 26 rural communities

`We are very happy'

Phone company plans similar DSL links in Western, Southern Md.

November 01, 2003|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

It used to take Andy Kim hours to download a security patch onto just one computer at his Salisbury accounting firm to protect it from the latest virus.

Forget about filing tax returns online during his busy season or watching seminars on Internet Web casts. As an Eastern Shore resident and businessman, the best Kim could get was a slow dial-up connection to cyberspace.

Now, as part of an initiative launched yesterday by Verizon Communications and the state of Maryland, 26 communities on the Eastern Shore are wired for high-speed Internet access. State officials hope the initiative will help attract economic development, homebuyers and new companies to more rural, less populous regions.

"We are very happy," Kim said in a video simultaneously broadcast to four locations in Maryland using the new technology. "It's made us more productive. ... The Internet is becoming center stage for many business activities. It's an essential part of our practice."

Broadband service in rural areas was minimal or unavailable for many years because the major providers considered the upgrade as unprofitable. But across the country, more states and Internet service providers are moving to bridge the so-called "digital divide" by bringing broadband to remote and rural areas.

Similar to the federal electrification programs of the 1930s, broadband will soon be considered as "traditional" as electricity and telephone service, said Damian Kunko, chief executive of Rural Broadband Coalition, an advocacy group.

About two-thirds of rural telecom companies upgraded their access lines to be capable of offering broadband by last year, but the National Exchange Carrier Association estimated that it would take nearly $11 billion to upgrade the remaining third, which serve 3.3 million lines.

To provide assistance, the U.S. Agriculture Department's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) offered more than $1.5 billion in loans and loan guarantees to spur more companies toward offering broadband in under served areas. In September, RUS also gave out $11.3 million in grants for broadband Internet providers to serve rural communities.

"It is expensive, no doubt about it," Kunko said. "But every state has recognized that they need to have access for every citizen to the Internet. Whether it's a municipality, an investor-owned utility or telecommunications company, everyone sees the need to expand service.

"There's a competitive interest to do it, of course. Verizon, like other telecom companies, have to have broadband to stay competitive in the future," Kunko said. "We don't care who provides it as long as someone provides it as quickly as possible to these areas,"

High-speed Internet access can make it easier for people who don't live near doctors or hospitals to get diagnosed online or to order medication through the Web. Rural schools that lack the funds to hire specialty teachers can offer language courses online.

Verizon Maryland, the state's dominant telephone company, saw an opportunity to tap the growing population on the Eastern Shore.

Last year, Verizon spent $405.4 million on upgrading its lines and switching centers, or "central offices," in Maryland. Customers need to be within three miles of a switching center to receive broadband service.

Twenty-nine communities from North East to Crisfield now have access to high-speed digital service through Verizon at a cost of about $30 to $35 a month.

Verizon officials said the company also plans to roll out broadband service in Western Maryland and Southern Maryland in the near future.

"To download a document, it used to take Eastern Shore residents three minutes on regular dial-up service," said William R. Roberts, president of Verizon Maryland, in a live broadcast from Chesapeake College in Wye Mills. "Now it takes less than 25 seconds" with digital subscriber line, or DSL, service.

"All in all, this is a serious commitment and investment by Verizon," he said, "one that encourages, not discourages more investment and job growth."

Simultaneous events announcing the broadband rollout also took place at Washington College in Chestertown, Wor-Wic Community College in Berlin, and Verizon's office in Annapolis, where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. watched the broadcasts and praised Verizon for helping to create a business-friendly environment in the state.

"We're here today to celebrate technology," the governor said. "To celebrate the ability for a high school student to do homework in a more efficient way and the ability for a college student to do research in an efficient way.

"Businesses on the Shore repeatedly told me, `We need this backbone. We cannot compete without it,'" Ehrlich said. "This will help our economic development efforts in the region."

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