Baltimore County installs new public broadband system

Baltimore County unveiled an $18.5 million plan Wednesday that officials said will vastly improve the local Internet system, provide quicker links among public safety agencies, schools, hospitals and libraries, and enhance connections to statewide networks.

The funding comes from the $115 million in federal stimulus money awarded to Maryland last month for broadband upgrades. The county will add $4 million in local spending to its $14.5 million share of the stimulus grant.

County Executive James T. Smith Jr. called the broadband technology program "a real game-changer, both for enhancing the effectiveness and efficiency of critical government operations and also for helping to create jobs," during a news conference at the Baltimore County Public Safety Building.

"This project will dramatically expand broadband capability in this county and state, and position our country for prosperity into the 21st century," Smith said.

The project, which will take about two years to complete, is targeted at public infrastructure and will not immediately affect home Internet access. Still, officials said, residents will notice changes; the upgrades will expand bandwidth and connectivity by tenfold to 120 county sites in all, including schools, colleges, hospitals, libraries and county agencies.

Health Department clinics will be able to share data and alerts with local and regional hospitals. Hundreds of students will be able to electronically attend the same lecture and share research facilities and resources. The project will allow teachers to set up interactive classrooms across the county or with other jurisdictions.

The project will also create jobs from design, engineering and installation to maintenance, officials said.

"We are looking at a second and third generation of jobs," said Rep. John Sarbanes. "Employers can use a work force that has more flexibility."

The county staged a video conference to demonstrate the speed at which agencies will be able to communicate in an emergency using the new technology. Officials watched on TV monitors in the command and control center as the Health Department immediately responded to a bioterrorism incident that could affect 25,000 people.

The health staff coordinated instantly with emergency operations and arranged for a vaccine delivery, security and a police escort. Emergency workers set up vaccine distribution points at recreation centers that would be ready to accept patients within hours. They even arranged for public works assistance, down to the forklifts needed to offload cases of vaccine. Last, they also set up links to relay the information to the public. This all occurred in less than five minutes and drew applause from those looking on.

Police and prosecutors said technology is playing an ever-increasing role in crime fighting. Expanded broadband means officers will spend more time on their beats and less time at their desks, said County Police Chief Jim Johnson.

"Patrol cars will become virtual mobile offices," Johnson said. "Officers can check data, access e-mail, even take training inside their cars. If they are responding to a robbery, they can download a photo of what the bank looks like inside, before they get there."

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