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Lack of broadband service in rural areas hurts economic development, official says

May 13, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,Sun Reporter

Significant parts of Carroll County - particularly the more rural, less populated areas - lack broadband Internet access, which threatens to hamper economic development, said Lawrence Twele, county director of economic development.

Broadband generally refers to any mode of high-speed Internet access, whether through DSL, cable modems or fiber-optic cable. Residents or businesses without broadband service generally have to use dial-up Internet connections.

Even on the outskirts of Westminster, the developing Air Business Center and West Branch Trade Center on both sides of Route 97 have inadequate broadband coverage, Twele said.

On top of the availability problem, businesses that move to an unconnected area would incur high costs to bring in broadband circuits, he said.

"You have to have it. It's as essential to businesses as running water and electricity," Twele said after the county commissioners meeting Thursday. "It's almost assumed that a building comes with it."

A recent meeting of the Carroll Technology Council shed light on the issue with a presentation on broadband services in the county by Joanne S. Hovis, president of Columbia Telecommunications Corporation.

The broadband discussion comes as officials are moving ahead with the long-awaited fiber-optic network to link Carroll County's public schools, government offices, community college and library system, which is expected to save taxpayers money by connecting these agencies with technology that allows information to be shared and stored more efficiently.

The Carroll County Public Network, as it is called, is expected to be up and running in three to five years.

"It's quite impressive how much activity there is in the county," Hovis said of the public network. "But the demand for broadband is far greater than the available capacity."

The broadband options for smaller private businesses are particularly lacking in parts of the county, Hovis said. She said the prevalence of cable television made it easier to bring cable modems to residences through existing cable. But business and industrial areas have been left out of that loop.

Comcast, the county's cable provider, and Verizon, which provides DSL(digital subscriber loop or line) services, may not find it profitable to expand coverage into less populated areas, Twele said.

Instead, locally based Internet service providers, such as Quantum Internet Services in Manchester and Skyline Network Engineering in Eldersburg, could capitalize on those neglected areas, he said.

Larger businesses also lack high bandwidth options, according to Hovis' report.

A DSL is the most basic, and slowest, form of broadband service. Some Zip codes in the northwest, northeast and central-eastern part of the county lack the DSL option.

Verizon provides DSL service out of offices in Westminster, Eldersburg-Sykesville and in Hampstead-Manchester, areas where the DSL services are strongest, according to Hovis' report.

But even within DSL service zones, the systems can be tapped out, Hovis added.

High-speed fiber-optic cable networks, considered the "Holy Grail of communications technology," have been laid for residential use in the populous D.C. suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, Hovis said. But companies such as Verizon have no established plans to build such networks in Carroll, Hovis said.

Whenever roads and sidewalks are torn up to upgrade water, sewer and gas lines, the county must take advantage of that opportunity to lay fiber-optic cable to start building a network, Twele told the commissioners.

Commissioner Dean L. Minnich, who attended the Carroll Technology Council presentation, has become an enthusiastic backer of fiber-optic efforts.

"If you have fiber, then you're sitting in the catbird seat," Minnich said. "If we're going to do anything that has any viability for the kind of high-tech industry that we want to get, along the Route 97 corridor, we need to at least look into the feasibility of putting in fiber."

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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