"It allows us to be at least on a more level playing field" with other areas, Pennington said. As it is, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties may not be considered by companies that need a lot of broadband.

That's a problem even in Howard County, where companies along the industrial corridor of U.S. 1 have said they need more broadband capacity to expand their operations, said Lawrence Twele, CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Before the advent of the fiber optic network, adding broadband capacity to suit a particular business could take a year or more, given all the legal arrangements and construction, and many opportunities would be lost, said Levy, now a county broadband advisor. Now upgrades can be done in a day, he said.

Twele said the county is now seeking a firm to lease the fiber capacity that is not committed to government uses. Up to now, he said, "we haven't been able to come out of the box with a big marketing" campaign for the network, but that effort will take shape in coming months.

Both Twele and Pennington emphasized the link between economic development and education, and the role the fiber-optic network could play.

Even if schools are wired for the latest in educational technology, Pennington said students who have poor Internet service at home are going to be at a disadvantage.

Twele said the network's application in area schools is another potential incentive for business development.

"Companies are going to want to be where the workers are smart," he said.

School administrators across the state look forward to having more bandwidth to enhance instruction and keep pace with an array of state and national tests conducted online.

Baltimore County's 174 schools are beginning a five- to six-year "digital conversion," moving more materials online and seeing to it that every student is equipped with a laptop, iPad or some other device, said Ryan Imbriale, the school system's executive director of digital learning.

"Without the infrastructure in place, it's close to impossible" to do this, he said.

At the moment, 46 of the county's schools are connected to the network, with the rest expected to follow.

While Somerset County schools recently upgraded their broadband capabilities, the fiber network is allowing its schools to consider how they might use videoconferencing and incorporate more video on interactive "smartboards" in the classroom, said Nancy J. Smoker, the system's interim assistant superintendent of administration. It also will make it easier to give tests to large numbers of students at once, she said.

The UMBC Training Centers in Columbia, offering technology and business courses to about 1,000 students per quarter, have been using the new network since last year, said Jon Lau, the centers' chief technology officer. The new system makes for smoother operations, he said, and should enable the school to expand course offerings in ways it might not have been able to afford otherwise.

"We're very excited about it. Really, it would be beyond our means," Lau said.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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