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New partnership will bring high-speed Internet to underserved western Howard County

Allan Kittleman announced the public-private partnership at a Mount Airy home on Monday, saying it would "level the playing field."
Allan Kittleman announced the public-private partnership at a Mount Airy home on Monday, saying it would "level the playing field." (Courtesy of Howard County Government)

When Nicole and Renard Parson moved from the bustling streets of New York City to the rolling hills of western Howard County five years ago, they were in for a surprise.

Their home in Mount Airy did not have high-speed Internet.

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With only 30 gigabytes to use per month — the best offer they could find from Verizon — the couple avoided updating their computers, paying bills online and watching Netflix. Renard, a teacher at Marriotts Ridge High School, often went to Dunkin Donuts, the library and the school to use free WiFi.

"It was a shock to us. It's the 21st century. You'd think every one has high speed Internet," Renard said.

After a two-year-long community effort led by their neighbor David Furman, western Howard County residents now can purchase unlimited high-speed Internet through a public-private partnership between Howard County and a private wireless provider, Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman announced at Furman's Mount Airy home Monday afternoon.

"This is not only a public-private partnership, but a public-public-public partnership," said Chris Merdon, director of the county's Department of Technology and Communication Services.

The wireless Internet availability is the result of networking. Howard County looped its fiber-optic network through the Mount Airy water tower in Carroll County, allowing Freedom Broadband to connect its WiFi equipment and begin expanding its services, Kittleman said.

The partnership also leverages the bandwidth of the 10-jurisdiction Inter-County Broadband Network, a publicly funded Internet provider that used $115 million from a federal stimulus grant and $45 million in state funds to lay down a 4,200-square-mile fiber optic network in 2013. Owned by governments, the network is touted for saving jurisdictions millions in phone and Internet fees to private cable broadband networks.

Kittleman said the partnership in western Howard County — which operates at "no cost" to the county — will create a "level playing field" for the area.

The partnership will address the needs of about 80 percent of the 15,000 underserved households in western parts of the county.

"This is not going to happen overnight, but it's a great start," Kittleman said.

Theresa Bethune, CEO of Freedom Broadband, hopes the partnership will allow her company to continue expanding beyond Carroll County.

"We are really excited about using this as a launching point to really bring more services to the people here," Bethune said, calling the partnership a "big win" for the community and the company.

Her company plans to build a silo in the West Watersville area over the weekend. By Feb. 16, the company should be able to provide services to local residents, she said.

Rolling terrain in western parts of the county makes it particularly challenging to ensure wide coverage, Bethune said, calling for the community to provide suggestions about where to mount silos on existing structures.

"The key is this is not just about quality of life… it is economically important," she said. "This is the first step and the goal is to keep building more."

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County officials said broadband services are a necessity – especially for property values.

"It's almost as important as water to a home these days," said Merdon.

The possibility of a broadband dark zone did not cross Mount Airy resident Ed Zepp's mind when he moved from Ellicott City to Mount Airy. Reliable and fast Internet is essential to his small business, Zepp Plumbing and Heating, he said.

After using an unreliable hot spot, Zepp went door to door to more than 50 houses to see if residents were interested in purchasing broadband. His neighbor, David Furman, began the effort more than two years ago.

Merdon and Kittleman applauded residents' efforts to bring services to the area, without which the process would have been significantly slower, said Kittleman.

Furman, who has lived in western Howard County for 13 years, has already used more than 125 gigabytes of data since Freedom Broadband expanded its service over the weekend.

Relying on a hotspot forced him to realize how much he depended on broadband Internet access.

"I know there's going to be a lot of interest from neighbors in western Howard County," he said. "It's simply a necessity."

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