Hundreds of miles of new fiber-optic cable about as thick as a garden hose are lighting 21st-century ambitions from one end of Maryland to the other.
Economic development officials imagine businesses opening or expanding thanks to more robust Internet connections. School administrators envision students using more electronic resources and foresee greater collaboration between schools. Some folks just look forward to dumping their dial-up modems.
"We're providing a new highway system touching every area of the state," said Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, whose technology staff took a lead role in the Central Maryland portion of the statewide project called the One Maryland Broadband Network.
Ulman is scheduled to appear Monday morning at Ciena Corp.'s Hanover headquarters along with U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin to mark completion of the project, built with $115 million in federal money and $45 million in state and local funds.
More than two years after the work began, about 1,000 miles of new fiber-optic main cable and tributary lines have been laid underground and suspended along utility poles, connecting about 1,000 buildings, including public schools, community colleges, libraries, and police and fire stations.
So far, it's been a government project, but businesses are expected to lease fiber from the counties, and one company in Anne Arundel County has already started connecting homes and business to Internet service carrying more information faster.
The main line is a 216-fiber cable across the state with thinner links to public buildings that serve as "hubs". From there, progressively more slender lengths of fiber will extend into neighborhoods and office parks, down to the single strand of fiber capable of carrying an Internet signal to and from a home or business.
Much of the network fiber is still dormant or "dark," but sections have been lit up for months.
"The real benefits to people" will begin soon, said Ira Levy, Howard County's former technology chief who helped lead the project in the nine urban and suburban jurisdictions that make up the so-called Inter-County Broadband Network, comprising most of the miles of cable and hubs in the statewide system.
In 15 rural counties, the project was managed by the Maryland Department of Information Technology. A nonprofit organization called the Maryland Broadband Cooperative will work with local providers to connect hubs to homes and businesses.
"For us this is a big day," said Tyler Patton, a spokesman for the cooperative, "for being able to fulfill our mission of working with Internet service providers across the state to service unserved or underserved areas."
Internet access in Maryland comprises a patchwork of services — from the slowest dial-up to the highest-speed broadband using fiber optics. Gaps in high-speed service are most prevalent in rural counties, but they show up even in the outlying areas of more densely populated counties such as Howard and Anne Arundel.
In southern Anne Arundel, an area of 850 homes still relies on dial-up service, said John Lyons, the county's cable television administrator.
That gap is being filled now. Anne Arundel hired a cable company to link the hub at Southern High School to neighborhoods including Lothian and Tracys Landing, up to 10 miles away.
Under a separate contract with the county, another local provider, Broadstripe, is linking the fiber to homes and business from 18 "taps" — plastic utility boxes standing shorter than a fire hydrant by the side of the road.
Del. Robert Costa of Deale said people in his area are eager to get on.
"Everybody wants off dial-up," he said. "You can check your email but basically you can't do anything."
Beyond the inconvenience for home users, poor Internet connections can hamper economic progress, education, public safety and health care. Funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the government's stimulus program, the network is meant to boost all these areas.
Michael Pennington, executive director of the Tri-County Council for the Lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, said he's concerned now about the distance between the main cable — chiefly built along main highways — and the population, especially in areas where homes and businesses are so spread out.
He worries that private companies still won't step up to build these final links, needed to give the area more of a competitive chance.