UM backs deal to offer wide Internet access


The University of Maryland system will ask the Board of Public Works to approve an innovative deal that could provide inexpensive access to the Internet for public schools, nonprofit groups and government agencies throughout the state, university officials said yesterday.

The agreement comes as part of the process of awarding two lucrative contracts to provide Internet access services to the university's College Park campus and the statewide university system.

Bill Hartline, assistant director for purchasing for the university, identified the winning bidders as Digital Express Group and BBN Planet.

Mr. Hartline said Beltsville-based Digital Express won the bidding for the College Park contract outright.

He also said that if the board approves the contracts at its July 26 meeting, Digital Express would split the other contract with BBN Planet, a Cambridge, Mass.-based subsidiary of Bolt, Beranek & Newman Inc.

The system-wide contract is particularly important because it would allow any nonprofit group, state agency, local government or school system in Maryland to piggyback on the price the university system will pay, said Richard Rose, director of telecommunications systems and operations for the university system.

He said that the rates will be attractive because the university can command a large volume discount.

Major F. Riddick Jr., chief of staff to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the university's procurement approach is consistent with the administration's goals, which include an increased use of telecommunications to deliver government services. He said the UM contract award could become the vehicle by which the state connects its "Electronic Capital" project in Annapolis to the Internet.

"I see it clearly in the picture for us if the cost is right, and I imagine it will be," said Mr. Riddick, who also serves as acting chairman of the state Information Technology Board. The Electronic Capital, which would make an array of state, city and county information available to citizens electronically, is the centerpiece of the Glendening administration's telecommunications agenda.

The contract award is a coup for the companies because universities are among the biggest users of the Internet, a worldwide network that has been growing at an exponential rate in recent years.

In addition, said Mr. Hartline, being chosen by a major university has "testimonial" value that can help bring in future business.

Doug Mohney, a spokesman for Digital Express, said that together the contract awards would be the largest order received by the four-year-old company and its first contract with a major research university. To win the contracts, Digital Express and BBN Planet had to outbid MCI Communications Corp. and UUnet Technologies, two major providers of Internet connections, Mr. Mohney said.

The College Park contract would be worth $367,000 over the first two years, with options for the next three years, Mr. Mohney said.

The system-wide contract was more difficult to put a price on because nobody can predict how many state agencies and other groups would sign up, he said.

"It's been alluded that anywhere up to 15 to 20 agencies are looking to buy access off this contract over the next 3 to 4 months," Mr. Mohney said.

John Curran, chief technology officer for BBN Planet in Cambridge, said he had not yet heard of the contract award, but Mr. Mohney said the Massachusetts company would split the statewide award virtually down the middle with Digital Express.

Both beneficiaries have an important presence in Maryland.

Digital Express employs about 70 people at its Beltsville headquarters.

BBN Planet, which received an $8 million infusion of capital from AT&T; yesterday, has a network operations office in College Park and shares a diversified office in Columbia with its parent company, Mr. Curran said.

Mr. Rose said procurement officers for government agencies would not be obligated to buy Internet access under the terms of the university's contract.

But he said he doubted they would be able to do much better on their own.

In one case, he said, a state agency that has been paying $100,000 a year for Internet access would be able to receive comparable service for about $12,000.

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