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.
"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.
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