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County government to build new computer network

Harford County government is embarking on an $8 million project to upgrade a computer network that is expected to serve as its own communications backbone, as well as making improved services available to the business community and other non-government entities.

But the new network could end up costing taxpayers two to three times its estimated price tag, because the county plans to borrow the money to fund the project, even though the new network could become obsolete long before the bonds sold to fund it are paid off.

The HMAN (Harford County Metro Area Network), which is budgeted for the 2012 fiscal year that began last Friday, will consolidate all communication networks into one high-speed IP (internet protocol) network that will provide Internet, Ethernet (an internal network) and voice-over IP (a technology allowing voice communication over the Internet).

"This new architecture creates a multi-service network that provides the government, public safety, education, health care, commercial and residential users a single infrastructure, with complete sovereignty and security, on an advanced consolidated core backbone," according to a project description narrative contained within the 2012 county capital budget.

Justus Eapen, the county's chief information officer, explained the network is critical for the county at this point in its history.

"As a community, we are experiencing a wonderful problem...growth," Eapen wrote in a recent e-mail. "It is in the best interest of the county to address broadband infrastructure requirements now when most needs are adequately met. If we wait and attempt to address broadband needs in a crisis, then poor decisions could be made."

With technology changing seemingly at the speed of light, Eapen admitted it is hard to know how long this new network could be viable.

"How soon the system may become obsolete is a question that no one could answer. That is, if better technology comes around next month, in theory, the system could become obsolete even before it goes into production," he wrote. "Therefore, before we get into any project of significance we look at the Return on Investment. If the ROI is within the time frame it takes to get any possible future replacement technology into production, then we consider the project to be viable."

According to the 2012 capital budget the Harford County Council approved in May, financing for HMAN will come through the sale of county bonds.

The estimated annual debt service on the $8 million in borrowing is $800,000 in principal and interest; bond issues typically have a 20 to 25-year repayment,

Eapen said if a countywide network that provides equal access to all could have been done by the private sector cost-effectively, his department would not have embarked on the HMAN project.

"I can assure you that the county will have to continue investing money in the future for all technology initiatives including this one for upgrades," he wrote. "However, as long as this office is committed to creating value with projects of this nature that possibly cannot be easily accomplished without government involvement, then we are being faithful steward of the taxpayers' money."

Inexpensive data access is especially needed for law enforcement and first responders, Eapen also wrote.

"Additionally, due to the recent Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) the influx of military personnel, residents, businesses and support organizations are beginning to saturate current capabilities," he wrote.

The county is taking proposals to build a wireless broadband network countywide, which has to integrate with the county's existing fiber infrastructure.

According to the project description, HMAN will not create or expand any department, attempt to eliminate current Internet providers, absorb any organizations' IT infrastructure, responsibilities or their personnel, change or eliminate organizational intranets or dictate to an organization how to support its own internal IT requirements.

This open access broadband network will use a combination of fiber, wired and wireless technologies for use as a business enabler for Harford County.

Besides county departments, stakeholders in the county's strategic broadband vision include the cities ofAberdeen and Havre de Grace, Harford Community College and the private business community.

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