Harford County officials were all smiles as their fiber-optic system, designed to give every school, library, volunteer fire company, law enforcement and local government agency equal access to high-speed Internet, went live Thursday.
The county government is also working out methods to allow private residents and businesses to connect to the $13.8 million HMAN, or Harford Metro Area Network.
Harford County Executive David Craig, Sheriff Jesse Bane, Harford County Public Schools Chief of Administration Joe Licata and Ted Pibil, director of the county Office of Information and Communication Technology, lauded the system during a media briefing in Bel Air to announce the start up of HMAN. In addition to county and school officials, representatives of the principal companies involved in the construction of HMAN, including KCI Construction Services LLC, Cisco Systems Inc., CTC Technology & Energy and Presidio, were in attendance.
Licata stressed that all 54 Harford public schools will have equal access to the network, which will give the schools the bandwidth they need for electronic testing and for Common Core classes.
He noted students also will have access to live streaming video, which will allow them to participate in class from anywhere.
"This will really, with a flip of a switch, increase the bandwidth we have in our schools 50 times, and in some schools 100 times," Licata explained.
The network is made up of four main fiber-optic rings and the lateral connections to those rings, such as a line that allows access to the network in Norrisville, in the far northwestern corner of the county.
HMAN includes more than 160 miles of cable with connections to more than 150 sites, according to a county news release.
Craig compared the network to the installation of telephone lines or electric lines a century ago.
"We had a lot of dead zones in Harford County, and that was important," he said. "You might have a firefighter in one building, no contact; you might have a deputy sheriff in a school, no contact, all sorts of things."
Bane said after the press conference that the HMAN would eventually make many communication technologies such as land lines, cellular telephones and email redundant.
"This moves us forward tremendously," he said.
The sheriff said he could have face-to-face communication with anyone in Sheriff's Office from his computer, including deputies in the field.
"It's kind of like doing everything you need to do and never leaving your home to do it," he added.
Lauren Brooks, computer support manager for the Sheriff's Office, said about 80 percent of the agency's systems should be connected to the HMAN by July.
Pibil said multiple county facilities already are on the system.
They include 17 schools, five county facilities – the Department of Emergency Services headquarters, the highways facility in Hickory, the county administration building and county council offices in Bel Air and the sheriff's office headquarters in Bel Air – and three volunteer fire companies: Bel Air, Susquehanna Hose Company in Havre de Grace and Fallston.
He said it will be a "gradual process" going forward as more facilities connect.
Pibil said $13.8 million in bond funds was appropriated in the capital budget in this fiscal year for construction, and about $13 million has been spent so far.
Annual maintenance costs will be included in Pibil's agency's budget. The county has a $272,400 annual contract with KCI to maintain the fiber-optic cable.
Pibil noted the county would save about $1 million a year by having its own communications network, freeing it from depending on Internet service providers such as Verizon and Comcast
He said the county is also developing a "business plan" – the Board of Estimates approved a contract with CTC in March to develop the plan – to determine how HMAN service will be extended through wireless Internet to businesses and residents and what it might cost the users to connect.
Pibil said that plan should be rolled out during the summer.
He said officials will "definitely" take into consideration users' security and privacy while on the network.
County Councilman Chad Shrodes thanked Pibil for extending service to northern Harford, the area he represents.
Shrodes said he is glad to see schools and libraries getting equal access and noted HMAN is critical for police and emergency first responders to be able to communicate when they are in the more rural parts of the county.
"I have been passionately advocating for this important project, for not only the county in general, but for northern Harford County," Shrodes said.