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Columbia Association connects to ICBN

The Columbia Association, a large community-services organization that manages many of Columbia's amenities, became the latest private-sector entity to link into the Inter-County Broadband Network, a publicly funded Internet provider that took years and $160 million in state and federal funds to develop.

The move, which was announced Monday at the Columbia Gym, is being touted by Columbia Association and Howard County officials as both a short- and long-term boon for both entities.

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By signing a five-year lease to use the network's recently laid, state-of-the-art fiber-optic cables, Columbia Association will see increases in Internet speeds – the current system operates at between 4.5 to 10 megabytes per second, while the new system operates at 100 megabytes per second – and cost savings of $3,868 monthly and $46,416 annually. Had CA opted to upgrade to 100 megabytes per second using other providers – such as Verizon or Comcast – the calculated savings jumps to $129,000 annually.

"It's a huge step," said Chuck Thompson, CA's Chief Information Officer. "A lot of this is to address immediate need that we have at our most popular sites; the places we see the highest utilization."

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The county can add the thousands of members of the Columbia Association to the list of service providers for the year-old network, which began as an Internet provider for public buildings.

"We spent the last three years building out 1,100 miles of fiber. ... And we spent all that time plugging in schools, police stations, fire stations, trenching, hanging fiber from telephone poles. And now we get to the exciting part: plugging in end users," said County Executive Ken Ulman, who has spearheaded the effort.

To start, six Columbia Association sites will be linked into the network: CA's headquarters, The Columbia Gym, Supreme Sports Club, Columbia Athletic Club, Haven on the Lake and CA's maintenance facility.

"As it stands right now, it's these six we are looking at, with the understanding we can grow," Thompson said.

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Thompson said all six facilities should be on the new system in four to six months, with Columbia Gym and the maintenance facility likely being the first. Chris Merdon, the county's CIO, said it takes between 30 to 45 days to get linked into the ICBN.

Columbia Association officials say the gyms are where the most changes will take place. By employing the network, CA will enhance WiFi access for gym-goers. It also will allow them to support cutting-edge fitness technology, some of which is already available at some facilities. Most of the equipment requires faster Internet speeds.

"We are just so excited about what this enables us to do within the facility," said Steve Mendelsohn, general manager of the Columbia Gym. "It will allow us to utilize the incredible technology that has become available through the equipment companies now."

While the ICBN will fill an immediate need, it also sets the stage for future opportunities, said Milton Matthews, the Columbia Association's president and CEO.

"I want to emphasize opportunity, because this represents lot of opportunities in a lot of different ways," Matthews said.

Thompson said one of the most appealing things about the ICBN is its ability to allow for expanded bandwidth of up to 10 gigabytes per second – 10 times faster than 100 megabytes per second – with no new construction.

"Technology is not a set and forget, it's constantly evolving. What worked even five years ago looks obsolete," Thompson said. "We are trying to position ourselves not only for today, but for over the horizon as well."

Merdon said the ICBN provides a competitive advantage for two reasons: the technology is the most up-to-date, and, because it's publicly funded provider, it does not face the same challenges as private-sector providers.

"Our newness gives us the advantage of faster speeds, but we also don't oversubscribe," Merdon said.

Oversubscription, according to Merdon, is when a provider saturates the fibers with multiple users, which can slow Internet connection. "It's a pretty common technique used in the telecommunications world, but we don't do that," he said.

Merdon added that part of the mandate was that the service would be provided at low rates.

The ICBN has 216 strands of fiber on the backbone, which runs across the state, Merdon said. Linked to the backbone are off-shoots that have between 96 to 12 strands of fiber. The off-shoots allow for the network to expand its reach in various directions off the backbone.

Merdon said it takes only two strands of fiber to get hooked up to the ICBN – one to receive information and one to disseminate information. And while everyone could theoretically link into the ICBN, he said it is cost-prohibitive if you are not with a half-mile radius of the backbone or an off-shoot.

According to the ICBN's website, the network is linked into 648 public buildings throughout nine jurisdictions – Annapolis, Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Carroll County, Harford County, Howard County, Montgomery County and Prince George's County.

Recently, the ICBN has begun linking into private-sector entities. Merdon said that it provides Internet for a handful of private entities, including nTech, a technology company based in Columbia that plugged in last week.

Last month, Howard County launched a telemedicine program in five elementary schools that leverages the network by using technology to allow doctors to virtually diagnose and treat patients.

"This is one more step on our mission to create the most wired county in the most wired state in the nation," Ulman said.

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