Broadbanding Together

Local Governments Set Fiber-optic Plans

May 25, 2009|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,larry.carson@baltsun.com

A regional web of fiber-optic cable would spread from Maryland's Eastern Shore to its western mountains under a plan by local governments to tap federal stimulus money for communications expansions.

If the effort is successful, it could mean $100 million or more flowing into Maryland, out of a $7.2 billion chunk of federal money set aside for fiber-optic projects.

Working separately, two groups of local governments are working to snare their share of funds, which officials said could create networks that would be cheaper than buying the service from private companies.

The web would also provide an economic boost by allowing more home-based business and other efforts in rural areas, they said.

One team, the One Maryland Broadband Plan, has been working at this for over a year. It includes Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Howard, Anne Arundel, Prince George's and Montgomery counties, plus Baltimore City and Annapolis

Another group of rural counties covering the Eastern Shore, Southern and Western Maryland is also preparing to apply for money through the Salisbury-based Maryland Broadband Co-operative, a private nonprofit created three years ago by the Maryland General Assembly and funded by state and federal funds.

"I personally feel we're one of the few states in the country shovel-ready," said Patrick Mitchell, the co-op's president and CEO, who said he hopes for 250 miles of cable in rural areas where companies like Verizon are loath to go.

Broadband access enables the swift transmission of huge gobs of information and pictures. That means fast, secure communications for police and firefighters in an emergency, for medical information, for myriad business uses, and for personal use, like students working on assignments.

Despite a 20 percent local match requirement for some of the money, boosters said a government-created network would cost far less than buying services from commercial providers.

"It's a very ambitious initiative," said Ira Levy, Howard County's director of information systems and a leader in the central Maryland effort. "Our strategy is to show that we're ready to jump right in."

But Christopher B. Summers, president of the nonpartisan conservative-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute in Rockville, denounced the broadband idea as part of a stimulus boondoggle that amounts to "a debt plan for future households."

He said government is more likely to mismanage and waste money than private communications companies, and questioned the premise that broadband will spur economic development.

"Does the farmer need a broadband wireless device while he's on his combine?" Summers said.

Many local governments have some fiber-optic cable within their own jurisdictions, but so far, only those in the Washington region are linked to each other.

The United States is far behind developed nations in Asia and Europe in providing access to broadband, an increasingly vital tool for business, government and for individuals, said Joanne S. Hovis, a Montgomery County-based consultant working for Howard County on the project.

"We are past the point where broadband is a luxury," she said. "It is essential to our future."

Local governments around the country are banding together like those in Maryland, she said, to compete for the federal stimulus money.

"We very much want to make sure the state attracts as much of these federal funds as we can," said Wyatt A. Shiflett, a director at the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development. He's helping both groups as they await specific application information.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has $4.7 billion to disburse - hopefully by September 2010 - while the Department of Agriculture has another $2.5 billion.

The Obama administration sees the funding as a way to create jobs while also creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs, researchers and local governments, said Mark G. Seifert, an NTIA official, in a speech to a congressional committee last month.

Levy and other local government leaders said the federal money would be a huge boost to under-funded efforts to link local and state governments.

"The Internet certainly suffices for the outside world, but internally, in an emergency, there's security and the ability to manage" with a fiber-optic network, Levy said. After the 9/11 attacks, he noted, cell phones and other communications links were useless. A secure fiber-optic network would allow agencies throughout central Maryland to keep communicating with each other, with state and national governments and even with sections of northern Virginia.

The network also would link hospitals, schools, libraries, colleges, senior centers and perhaps public housing, where computer access is often limited for low-income families, Levy said.

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