Fiber optics a boon, from classroom to operating room

Leasing office space in this economy can be a challenge, especially in older buildings, but Taylor Fields is working on getting an edge: a super-fast fiber-optic broadband connection.

"One of the first things [prospective tenants] ask is what kind of Internet service we have," said Fields, a Timonium-based commercial leasing agent for the James F. Knott Realty Corp. "They all want fast Internet."

As work begins on a fiber-optic broadband network that will connect every Maryland school, hospital, police station — and even more public buildings — businesses also want to get involved. Knott is working with a contractor in the $158 million project, and hopes to be among the first corporate users when the work is complete in two to three years.

The idea is to link more than 2,000 miles of existing broadband cable in counties and cities, creating a central electronic infrastructure that would guarantee secure communications in emergencies, as well as service in rural areas where commercial Internet providers are reluctant to go. The system also is designed to save governments millions in commercial fees now paid to telecom firms.

The high-capacity lines are expected to have a broad effect on fields including public safety, education and health care. Officials say private business will benefit, too, in the same way that development often occurs along major transportation corridors. Companies can negotiate private contracts to connect to the system, and even expand it.

Jon Johnson, who lives in a rural portion of western Howard County, wants to use the system too, so he can eliminate the two-hour morning commute to his office in Arlington, Va.

"If the broadband were there, I would be eligible to work from home," he said. Gas alone costs him $350 a month, and commercial Internet providers won't bring a high-speed computer connection to his door.

So he has to rely on a wireless "air card" that uses signals from towers just as a cell phone does. That's fine for such services as online banking, he said, but not good enough for working at home.

The state is just beginning a two-part campaign to link the 10 localities in Central Maryland and the 14 counties beyond, and the 1,300 miles of thick orange tubes full of tiny wires are to be installed underground and on utility poles across the state by September 2013.

Maryland won a $115 million federal stimulus grant to build the project, and added a $43 million local match. A warehouse logistical center for the Central Maryland portion of the project recently opened in Elkridge.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a unique situation," said Rob Stradling, director of the Office of Information Technology for Baltimore County. Maryland is the only state in the nation working to connect every jurisdiction to broadband. "We'll have a dedicated public safety pipeline."

That means in an emergency, every police agency or fire company, hospital and health official in Maryland could communicate quickly and securely with a counterpart miles away, or with an emergency management center. Public safety training classes and government officials would be less rooted to a physical location. If Harford County's 911 center failed, for instance, Baltimore County dispatchers could theoretically take calls for them until the problem is fixed.

"It would just enhance everything," said Reg Hahn, a computer science teacher at Marriotts Ridge High School in West Friendship.

Gov. Martin O'Malley joined Vice President Joseph Biden at a news conference in Washington last week to emphasize the issue's importance nationally, and to promote a national broadband system to boost public safety and the economy.

Andrew B. Coy, a 26-year-old Teach for America instructor at Baltimore's magnet Digital Harbor High School downtown, said the service is "essential" both for students who need the skills to compete for colleges and jobs, and for teachers like himself.

"When you have 30 kids in a room all trying to do this at one time," Coy said, just loading images or text can take a long time.

With video connections such as Skype and video conferencing, or for students trying to create a PowerPoint-style project using a free website like Prezi, a high-speed, high-capacity network is important. Teachers can connect with classes in other schools in other places via the broadband network, in some ways erasing geographic and political boundaries.

Even schools and public agencies that have broadband service would benefit from the high-capacity trunk lines in the new statewide system, experts said.

One Digital Harbor student recently researched what President Barack Obama did on June 7, and prepared a presentation using both pictures and text on the Prezi web site.

"I want the kids to realize the government affects their real lives," Coy said. He recently assigned his students, who come to Digital Harbor from all over the city, to find out who represents them in Congress and prepare a visual report. "The classroom is no longer just a textbook," he said.

That's where libraries — both for the public and at universities — come in.

"So many people don't have access to computers," said Andrea Snyder, job and career librarian at the 21-branch Enoch Pratt Free Library. The new system, she said, would improve connections and allow people writing resumes, researching job openings or students doing research to do more, faster.

"The truth is, no one knows all the possibilities. "The more sophisticated we get, the more advanced we become," said Valerie Gross, Howard County library director.

Medical engineering is another field that would benefit, said Phillip J. Stolka, a post-doctoral fellow and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Computational Sensing and Robotics. There, engineers and computer scientists are perfecting new ways to use expensive ultrasound machines to diagnose and treat various kinds of cancers from remote locations, controlling the images with applications on iPhones.

A high-capacity broadband network would open new doors, he said, by allowing one physician to view and control ultrasound machines in different locations. At the same time, a classroom of university engineering students could be connected to a machine in a hospital or on another college campus.

"What you get is the difference between talking about all these images and actually seeing them," Stolka said, adding "[T]he bigger the [communications] pipe, the smoother the images."

For the Maryland State Police, expense is another factor, said Michael Roosa, chief information officer. In rural areas of the state, commercial carriers charge for priority access in emergencies. The new system would not only connect state police barracks from Oakland to http://www.baltimoresun.com/travel/beaches/, but every local sheriff's office and municipal police and fire station in between.

"We're building the infrastructure that will allow us to keep layering on services," Roosa said.

Baltimore County police Sgt. Charles Standiford said broadband could help speed information to officers searching for a suspect or someone wanted on a warrant.

Derek McKinney, President of IPX International, a high-tech firm that has worked mainly in Africa and the Middle East until now, says government technology can affect everybody.

His Rockville-based firm won a contract worth $20 million over two years to operate a logistics center for Maryland's broadband network. That means up to 15 more employees and some home-grown experience for a locally owned, startup minority contractor.

"Our business has been about bridging the digital divide" between those who have and use the new technology and those who don't, often in third-world nations, he said. "Part of the reason for the federal project was to bring broadband access to rural places where companies like Verizon and Comcast won't go because there aren't enough customers to make it profitable.

"It's going to give us all better access."