Maryland wins $115 million in federal broadband stimulus money

Maryland will get $115 million in federal stimulus money to build a high-speed broadband Internet system that will link Oakland to Ocean City, congressional and state leaders said Friday.

The grant, the second largest of its kind in the country to date behind one received by West Virginia, will help Maryland connect the patchwork of fiber-optic networks that currently run through each of its 24 jurisdictions.

The broadband funding will result in vastly improved Internet speeds for local government offices, schools, hospitals, and emergency communication networks across Maryland, officials said. More than 1,200 miles of new fiber-optic cable will be installed across Maryland — a 50 percent increase over the existing network capability, officials said.

"This broadband grant will build a super information highway where broadband has not gone," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat. "Now we're going to be a zoom-zoom digital superhighway."

The money comes from a pool of $4.7 billion in funds set aside by the federal government to improve broadband access for poor and underserved communities across Maryland.

For Marylanders, the project won't mean immediate broadband improvements to in-home service; instead, residents can expect public facilities to be fully networked with fiber-optic technology.

Officials highlighted the advancements that fiber-optic connections can bring, including connecting doctors and patients across the state using video conferencing and networking Maryland students with educators around the world.

Business customers may be able to take advantage of the advances in fiber-optic networking, as counties potentially could lease unused parts of their network to corporations, and thereby attract new revenue. Telecommunications companies may also be able to lease parts of the network and extend it to their residential customers.

State officials said the cash will help create an estimated 1,600 jobs over three years. Maryland's congressional delegation and Gov. Martin O'Malley made the announcement at a news conference in Canton. Another group of officials participated via Internet from Easton Memorial Hospital on the Eastern Shore.

"Enhancing the broadband capabilities within the state of Maryland will be a powerful tool in connecting patients, physicians and hospitals," said Jon P. Burns, senior vice president and chief information officer of the University of Maryland Medical System, which includes Shore Health System and Easton Memorial Hospital.

The state and counties will have to match 20 percent of the federal aid.

The funding will help upgrade the state's assortment of so-called "middle mile" fiber-optic networks, which are typically used by government and commercial institutions.

The "last mile" of fiber-optic network, where individual households are given access, will not be immediately affected, though telecommunications companies will be able to pay to tap the networks to offer new broadband services to customers, if they so choose, officials said.

Much of the money — about $72 million dedicated to the 10 jurisdictions in Central Maryland — will be administered by Howard County. It was Howard's information systems director, Ira Levy, who spent 18 months leading the effort to get the money.

"This was a highly competitive grant, and they deserve credit for making this possible," said Joanne S. Hovis, a private consultant who has helped in the effort.

Levy said it may take several months for the new money to be put to work, but subdivisions that have already set funds aside toward the 20 percent local match can begin using them.

"We can start next week," Levy said, noting the $2 million Howard had put aside. "Now we have confidence to spend it since it's part of a larger project."

He said the new system will also save local governments money by allowing them to stop paying for commercial Internet connections for school buildings, for example.

Many public safety and government institutions across Maryland currently have access to about 10 megabytes to 1 gigabyte of Internet service. By comparison, most broadband services for consumers start at around 1 megabyte.

The new fiber-optic installations would boost public sector accessibility from one gigabyte to up to 10 gigabytes, officials said.

"We really see this as serving more as a catalyst for private industry," as federally built highways or mass transit does now, Levy said. "We're not going into the triple-play business," he said, referring to Comcast's sales pitch to residential customers for television, telephone and Internet service.

The money will be used to link 458 schools, 44 libraries, 262 police and emergency centers, 15 community colleges, six universities and 221 other government and community centers in a statewide network designed to be available and secure in emergencies.

Current Internet connections are often too slow, the officials said, for sending massive amounts of business records, video conferencing medical records and emergency messages.

Municipalities across the country this year have been motivated by a competition by Google, in which the Internet search giant will choose a community in which to build an ultra-high-speed Internet broadband network.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the new federal funding to improve the state's broadband networks — including those in Baltimore — will make the city more attractive in the race for Google's attention.

The U.S. lags behind nations in Europe and Asia in broadband installation, which in those countries allows fast movement of large amounts of information and images. Creating a faster public network also guarantees quick, unobstructed communications for public safety agencies in emergencies, when cell phones and the public Internet are often jammed and useless.

Many local governments have some broadband capability, but only those in the Washington area have linked together. Advocates say it is essential for future communications and economic development, especially in rural and poor areas.

Officials have said a publicly owned fiber-optic network would be cheaper and serve rural communities, schools, hospitals, senior centers, libraries and perhaps public housing, even in places where for-profit companies like Verizon might be loath to go.

With more money, local officials have said they could reach places like rural northern Baltimore County, and link to Howard, Harford and Anne Arundel County, as well as spreading the network throughout the city, including poor neighborhoods.

Maryland officials have been trying to secure federal money since 2008, but failed to get any of the $7.2 billion from an initial round of funding available for this and other uses. Speculation was that Maryland's bid might have been weakened because there were two separate coalitions — one of Central Maryland jurisdictions and one including rural counties.

The U.S. Commerce Department told Howard County Executive Ken Ulman in May that Maryland had lost out on the first round of grants except for $932,000 awarded to Coppin State University.

After that setback, rural and urban groups united under O'Malley's urging and tried for a share of the remaining $2.6 billion from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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