When Linda Livesay moved to a neighborhood off Bachman Valley Road in Manchester nine years ago, one of the last things on her mind was a fast, reliable Internet connection.
It wasn't until the lack of a connection began affecting her ability to run her property management business out of her home that she realized its importance, Livesay said. However, no Internet service provider is willing to extend their networks to her or her neighbors' homes along that stretch of road, she said.
"It's starting to get to the point where how can you force us to do more online and not give us a way to do it?" Livesay said. "I didn't think about that at the time I moved, but now I know because I'm dealing with it every day."
Livesay is not alone in her frustrations at having to live with limited Internet capabilities, a commodity that has become more and more essential over the years.
In the cable franchise agreement between Comcast and the county, Comcast is required to provide service to all eight municipalities and areas that have a density of at least 20 homes per mile, according to Mark Ripper, chief information officer for the county's Office of Technology Services. While Comcast has access to 90 percent of locations in Carroll, this still leaves 10 percent — or almost 17,000 residents — without a reliable connection, he said.
The county is hoping to assist Comcast in its plans to reach these outlying communities.
County staff are hoping that the creation of a committee to develop a long-term fiber network plan and the eventual connection of its fiber network to Baltimore City — a hub of Internet service providers — will enable them to make strides in providing high-speed Internet service to all residents and businesses in Carroll.
Creating a fiber master plan
The Carroll County Board of Commissioners have directed staff from two county agencies to begin identifying potential members for a committee whose intention will most likely be to develop a long-range plan to spread the tendrils of Carroll's fiber-optic network to the outer reaches of the county.
Ripper said that though he has not been given an exact direction from the commissioners concerning the mission of the committee, he thinks one purpose of the group will be to identify costs associated with extending the fiber network directly to businesses, municipalities and outlying areas of Carroll. Another will be developing a plan to extend to the remaining 10 percent of Carroll residents, he said.
"There is no time frame to have this last 10 percent covered, but that's what this committee is going to be looking at," he said. "Within the next year, we will have a better plan for a time frame for that. A lot of these will be wireless solutions."
Weetman said during a May 21 commissioners' meeting that no one in-house with county government has the expertise to create such a fiber master plan.
"We are talking about the legalities of who will own the fiber, developing a time frame for streets and businesses to have fiber, and what order the network will be completed, are just some of the concerns," Weetman said.
Ripper said certain inevitable aspects of a long-term fiber network plan — such as marketing the fiber — are beyond the skill sets of county employees. He and Weetman will look to employees of private companies to bring this knowledge to the committee, he said.
"These are the type of people we are going to be looking for that have different types of expertise that are directly related to fiber or go hand-in-hand with fiber to put a long-term plan together," Ripper said.
He and Weetman are set to appear before the county commissioners sometime in the next two weeks to present a list of potential members of the committee to the board.
The Baltimore connection
Late last year, the City of Westminster began the installation of its own fiber network system. The first phase of the project will connect residents in the Fairway Drive residential area and the Air Business Park, but the end goal is to connect every residence and business in Westminster, said Robert Wack, president of the Westminster Common Council.
Wack said once Carroll's network is able to connect to Baltimore's network —which could happen within the next four to five months — this would make it economically feasible for other municipalities to follow Westminster's lead.
While Westminster's fiber network operates independent of the county's, the proximity of multiple Internet service providers willing to lease municipal fiber should incentivize Carroll's other municipalities to begin designing their own networks, Wack said.
None of the other seven municipalities in Carroll have any plans to develop and construct such a network in the near future.
Westminster's project is expected to cost $19.3 million to complete, and take several years to construct, he said.
Two-thirds of the expense of developing such a network is in laying the fiber and conduits underground, Wack said. A private sector company is oftentimes hesitant to invest in such an endeavor because it takes years to reap the rewards, Wack said.
"[Fiber] is long lasting and perfect for municipalities," Wack said. "They don't need an immediate capital return like a private sector business. By taking on two-thirds of the cost, it makes it possible for [Internet service providers] to come and take advantage of the network."
The connection to Baltimore City will make Carroll a far more enticing place for business to locate, thus improving the tax base of the county and municipalities, said Jon Weetman, administrator of operations and small business development for the Department of Economic Development.
"I want to make sure we aren't only focused on serving existing businesses but understanding that doing this properly can also change and enhance the businesses in Carroll," Weetman said.
While the connection of various municipal networks to Carroll's fiber would enable residents in those areas to access high-speed Internet, there are many remote locations that even this interconnected network would not be able to reach.
Karen Moderacki, who lives in the Trident Acres development in Westminster, said she spoke with Comcast, which had already extended its network a stone's throw away from her house, and was told it would cost $5,000 to run wires from the road to her home. Even though she offered to dig the trench so Comcast could lay the wires, and cover it up once installation was complete, it would still cost her $2,600.
Dawn Horst, who lives on Alesia Lineboro Road in Manchester, said she was told by representatives of Comcast it could take between 18 months and five years to get an Internet connection to her neighborhood on Alesia-Lineboro Road, and cost $50,000 to run wires to her and 51 neighbors.
One solution would be to connect these locations with wireless technology, Ripper said.
The county's network is currently being used to provide wireless connectivity to about a half-dozen locations, he said, including the Humane Society of Carroll County in Westminster and Westminster Elementary School. However, while staff is working to connect other locations, there has been no great change in the number of wireless connections in recent months, he said.
The locations selected for wireless technology were chosen due to the cost and difficulty of doing a wired solution, he said. While a wired connection is always preferred — mainly to ensure the quality of the connection — it's not always fiscally possible to do so in the more remote parts of the county, Ripper said. The Baltimore connection combined with additional municipal networks will make it easier to extend its reach to these remote parts of Carroll, he said.
"If you've got the right mix of things, it makes [wireless connections] easier and tremendously less expensive," he said. "It's going to have to be a part of the final solution; we will never be able to run wires to all locations. It's the way of the future."
Enabling the Expansion
Wack, Weetman and Ripper are hoping to work together — in conjunction with the committee — to connect the two networks, thus possibly saving the county millions by eliminating the need for Carroll to lay a redundant set of fibers in Westminster.
Westminster's network differs from the county's in that it extends directly to locations, known as an end-mile structure, Wack said. The network focuses on reaching communities and businesses that are not currently connected via Comcast, he said, but will also extend to areas that have connections with Comcast already.
Westminster has leased its fiber to Ting, a Toronto-based Internet service provider, which is offering significant cost reductions to residences and businesses, Wack said.
The cost to lay fiber underground after construction of a home or business is complete is roughly $130,000 per mile, Ripper said. That's twice what it would cost if the fiber was run while construction took place. There is no money in the Office of Technology Services' budget to run fiber this final mile and no current plans to extend fiber directly to buildings, Ripper said.
During a meeting May 21, Commissioner Dennis Frazier, R-District 3, suggested requiring businesses to pay for the cost of running the fiber, or perhaps sharing the cost with the county, but acknowledged there are drawbacks to such a requirement. In order to build a stronger economic base, new businesses need to be encouraged to come to Carroll, and this requirement could act as a deterrent, he said.
To pay for the costs of expanding and maintaining the county's fiber network, Carroll government implemented an enterprise fund comprised of money attained from the leasing of fiber to several companies.
Until May 2014, the county was unable to find companies willing to lease the fiber, and was relying on loans from its General Fund to the Fiber Network Enterprise Fund to maintain the network, said Deborah Effingham, chief of the Bureau of Budget. At the end of fiscal year 2014, the enterprise fund owed the General Fund about $450,000, she said.
The county now leases fiber to three companies, including Carroll Hospital in Westminster, Jos. A. Banks in Hampstead, and Quantum Telecommunications in Manchester.
While the money estimated from these leases — expected to total about $62,000 in fiscal year 2016 — will not be enough to eliminate these transfers, staff is predicting that by 2020, revenue generated will exceed fund expenditures, Ripper said.
"If we lease an additional 350 miles [of fiber] a year each year through 2020, our income will exceed our expenses, and by 2026 we will start to see some positive balance in that [fund]," Ripper said.
Fiber optics and the existing network
Carroll's existing network, which is comprised of 216 strands of optical fibers stretching more than 110 miles throughout Carroll, was completed in September 2013 and connects more than 100 locations, including public schools, libraries, county government offices, Carroll Community College and two businesses, said Mark Ripper, chief information officer for the county's Office of Technology Services.
It cost $18 million to construct, $6 million of which was federally funded, Ripper said. This was just the cost to construct the backbone of the network, he said, and the county is even now working on connecting several other locations.
Only one-third of the strands are used by county organizations, Ripper said, leaving plenty of fiber for increased business usage.
Gary Davis, chairman of the Carroll County Public Network and chief information officer for the Carroll County Public School System, said optical fibers are made of glass or plastic and are only slightly thicker than a strand of human hair. Data that has been transmuted into light pulses traverses the length of the fiber, which allows for travel over greater distances and at higher bandwidths than is possible using metal wire cables, Davis said.
Fibers are used rather than metal because data travels across them with less signal loss and, in addition, fiber-optics transmission cables are immune to electromagnetic interference, he said.
The county is saving somewhere between $500,000 to $600,000 annually by using its own network rather than utilizing a service provider such as Comcast, he said.
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The county's network also snakes through each of the county's eight municipalities; however, the county's fiber network model, known as a middle-mile structure, acts as a highway connecting one area to another but lacks the back roads that enable access to individual locations not originally planned as part of the system, said Robert Wack, president of the Westminster Common Council.