Police and firefighters using videoconferences for training. High school students taking college-level courses online. Residents telecommuting instead of racking up mileage and gas bills.
Carroll County officials envision these scenarios, and more, as potential benefits of a fiber-optic cable network winding its way through the area.
Today, representatives from county agencies - the government, school system, community college and library - plan to celebrate the developing 110-mile network.The network will connect more than 120 sites, including municipal and first-responder locations, and speed communication and information sharing. It will put an end to halting video streams, officials say, transferring information at about 650 times their current speed, possibly more. And, they say, it will save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
"We're creating a modern community, really," said Gary Davis, chairman of the Carroll County Public Network, the cooperative entity behind the fiber plan.
To Davis and others in Carroll, the move toward fiber represents a necessary step that will not only improve efficiency and education, but also draw business. It is a step several jurisdictions in Maryland - including Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties - have taken, some with private companies such as Comcast or Verizon installing the lines.
"It was one of the keys to help the county advance," Rob Stradling, Baltimore County government's chief information officer, said of the fiber.
But in counties such as Carroll and Harford, where telecommunications giants sometimes delay advances because populations are less dense, officials have decided to go it alone - and save money in the long run, they say.
"This is kind of a wasteland in terms of broadband access," said Robert Wack, a Westminster city councilman and member of the county's Cable Regulatory Commission.
"There are a number of counties in Maryland, and cities and counties throughout the country, that are installing and using fiber for their own needs," said Joanne Hovis, president of Columbia Telecommunications Corp., a communications-engineering consulting company that did a feasibility study for the Carroll project.
While many jurisdictions tend to lease lines for their Internet and phone needs, renting "a slow lane" from whatever company owns the circuitry, Hovis said, Carroll officials have opted to create their own highway.
"It's the highway of today," she said, "and what Carroll County is doing is building for itself so it can control [the highway], and so it's never limited in terms of what it can do on that highway."
DSL and cable modems move one and two megabytes a second, respectively, Hovis said, but fiber technology has the potential to transmit information 1,000 times faster, and even more rapidly as electronics improve.
Carroll's network is scheduled to be completed in spring 2010, but fiber will be put to use immediately after it's in place, said Mark Ripper, chief information officer for county government.
The new technology will save the county money, Ripper said.
Not having to pay monthly fees of between $200 and $1,000 for each of the current Internet and phone connections will be a "huge cost savings," Ripper said, adding that an estimated $900,000 per year in monthly charges would no longer go to companies such as Verizon or Comcast.
Patti Davis, director of network and technology services for Carroll Community College, said the school has seen savings, forsaking one monthly circuit payment for fiber, and connecting a remote location for an education program with a combination of fiber and cable.
"It's going to pay for itself," said Gary Davis, who is also the school system's chief information officer, of the $7.3 million project.
There are maintenance costs for fiber, such as help desks for tracking calls of line breaks or failing equipment, said Bill Wheeler, chief of information systems in Harford County, where a bigger network, expanding on Bel Air's fiber, is under way.
"You can't look at everything on return of investment," Wheeler said, adding that some benefits are based on future growth.
In Carroll, the members of the Public Network - representatives of the government, community college and the school and library systems - point to their relatively unconventional collaboration as a key factor.
"Instead of doing redundant things, we're working together," Gary Davis said. He pointed to the new backup data center the Public Network entities plan to share.
Their connection will enable the agencies to tap into each other's resources. Surveillance systems, for example, could be integrated, giving police forces easier access to them, Patti Davis said.
Both see potential for partnerships between the school system and college, linking students to higher-level classes or to courses they normally wouldn't be able to take because of low enrollment.