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Baltimore looks to join 'gigabit cities,' including Westminster, in boosting broadband Internet capacity

As cities including Westminster gain a gigabit of Internet capacity, Baltimore leaders are playing catch-up as they look to boost broadband access in the city.

When Google announced plans in 2010 to build an ultra-fast network somewhere in the United States, Baltimore leaders pledged to expand the city's Internet bandwidth with or without the Internet giant.

But Google passed the city by and, five years later, neither Comcast nor Verizon have offered such a network. You need to drive 45 minutes to find the nearest "gigabit city" — one where you can download a high-definition movie in a few seconds, at speeds dozens if not hundreds of times faster than many broadband Internet users are willing to pay for.

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"It was clear nobody else was going to do it for us," said Dr. Robert Wack, City Council president for Westminster, which lit up a fiber-optic network it has begun building for its residents and businesses this summer.

As Westminster joins a growing number of communities investing in networks capable of carrying a gigabit of data each second, Baltimore appears eager to follow. Armed with the results of two recently completed studies, one of which cost the city $157,000, City Council members are calling for action. Candidates and community groups are making the issue political, as a means to improve education and create jobs in Baltimore. And a newly appointed city broadband czar is working to coordinate the discussion.

But there's still no consensus on how Baltimore could become a gigabit city. It could try to cajole Verizon or another provider to invest in a citywide fiber network or build its own, as Westminster is doing and some City Council members recently suggested.

"It's very much a blank sheet of paper," said Jason Hardebeck, a veteran technology entrepreneur appointed as the city's broadband coordinator in August by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "We just recognize that the status quo for broadband in the city is not acceptable."

The fastest Internet service generally available to most Baltimore residents and businesses is about one-sixth the speed available in Westminster, but most people do not pay for such high-end service.

Comcast offers its XFINITY cable-based service in Baltimore with speeds ranging from 3 megabits per second to 150 megabits per second, which can download a full-length movie in minutes. It also offers a package with advertised speeds of 505 megabits, about half a gigabit, per second for $400 a month.

Spokeswoman Aimee Metrick said the company's network uses both coaxial copper-based cable and fiber-optic cable, though she would not say how much of its 145,000 miles of fiber-optic cable nationwide are in Baltimore.

Verizon's only high-speed Internet service available in the city is DSL, which offers bandwidth of at least 1 megabit per second, enough to download a high-resolution photo in less than two seconds or a 10-minute video in 17 minutes. Customers who live close to one of Verizon's network hubs can buy enhanced service reaching up to 15 megabits per second. Its FiOS service, offered in much of Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel and Harford counties, goes from 50 megabits to 150 megabits per second.

Compared with copper-based technology, fiber-optic cable can carry significantly more data faster. Fiber cables are made of strands of glass or plastic finer than a human hair and carry data in the form of light. Unlike copper-based networks, the signals do not degrade over long distances.

"There's not really technology that can push a gigabit that doesn't include fiber," said Mark Wagner, former managing partner of Litecast, a Baltimore fiber technology company, and now a managing partner for Bay-Tek Consulting.

Such speeds are seen as increasingly important as consumers and businesses use more devices to tap more and more data from the Internet. In schools, for example, computers and tablets are becoming increasingly important tools for instruction and even homework. Electronic health record systems and telemedicine are bringing health care into the 21st century but also straining networks.

"When you say you want to improve your education system, this is what you have to bring to the forefront," said Dea Thomas, an Otterbein resident who is running for the City Council. "This is what's going to make the community stronger."

Sitting council members agree. Last month, 13 of them, led by Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, introduced a resolution calling for the city to craft a plan for laying fiber-optic cable connected to all homes and businesses and overseeing operation of the network. "Timely execution is critical," the resolution states.

The resolution is informed by two studies completed this summer. One, produced by the mayor's Smarter City Task Force, emphasized that improving the city's network infrastructure is vital for growing a high-tech economy.

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The other, a more detailed report from contractor Magellan Advisors that cost the city $157,000, urges the city to pursue available federal funding for connecting schools to fiber and to begin leasing fiber-optic cable already in the ground to companies or institutions that want to use it.

Magellan found there is at least 122 miles of fiber-optic cable around the city, part of networks such as the federal stimulus-funded Inter-County Broadband Network and Net800, a police and fire communications network. An expansion of the Net800 network to 54 miles was scheduled to end this month.

"I'm sure we have enough studies now to do the unthinkable — move ahead," Clarke said.

But a range of options remain for how to do that — from relying on a Comcast or Verizon to build a fiber network to establishing a municipal utility that would lay the cable and manage it. Westminster went with a public-private hybrid, building its own network but leasing its operation to the private sector.

Bandwidth of up to 1 gigabit per second is spreading across the country, having launched in cities that include San Francisco, Seattle, Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., Houston, Miami, and Omaha, Neb., offered by companies such as AT&T, Century Link, Cox and Comcast. Smaller, local outfits have recently launched service in places such as Detroit and Dayton, Ohio.

And Google Fiber continues to spread across the country. Since Kansas City beat out other communities, including Baltimore, for the first Google Fiber network, Google has expanded to Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah, and is building out networks in seven more cities, including Atlanta, Nashville and Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte, N.C., and is weighing adding service in six others.

In Irvine, Calif., Louisville, Ky., and San Diego, three potential Google Fiber cities announced last month, Google is studying topography, housing density and infrastructure to consider whether construction of a large fiber network is feasible. Even if Google does not move forward, company officials said its vetting process could make the communities more attractive to other telecommunications companies looking to build fiber networks.

In Baltimore, some are still pressing for help from Verizon, given that its FiOS network comes so close to the city. On a recent weekday, the community group Maryland Working Families and City Council candidates including Thomas protested outside Verizon offices.

"Verizon is the one entity that can lay fiber most cost effectively for the city," said Adisa Muse, political director for Maryland Working Families.

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But the telecommunications company does not have plans to expand the network beyond places where it is contractually obligated to do so, spokesman John Bonomo said. Verizon has surpassed its goal of connecting 18 million households to the network, having invested $23 billion.

"While we understand the demand for FiOS, we never planned or stated that we would bring FiOS everywhere," Bonomo wrote in an email.

Clarke said she thinks the city will have to step up, in some capacity, to get a fiber network. But how much of a role it should play could become a point of debate.

For Westminster, investment in a fiber network was not an easy sell.

"It took us a while to get traction because, frankly, we couldn't get people to take it seriously," said Wack, the City Council president.

But now, the most frequent question and concern about the gigabit service — which costs residents $89 a month plus a one-time $399 installation fee — is, "Can't you get to my house sooner?" said Valerie Bortz, Westminster manager for Ting, a Canadian company that is leasing the fiber from the city.

The city has spent $1.6 million to build the first 7 percent of the network, connecting about 400 homes and businesses. Officials secured a $21 million bond to cover the rest, Wack said, with strong support from city leaders and residents.

"At the end of the day, it's just like any other infrastructure project we undertake," Wack said. "I think that's how every municipality and local government should approach this. This is just another type of infrastructure in the 21st century."

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