County outlines path to Internet

The Baltimore Sun

Organizers of a long-awaited fiber-optic network to link Carroll County's public schools, government offices, community college and library system have identified the 110-mile pathway where the system's cables will be hung, if Verizon and Baltimore Gas and Electric will permit the wires to be installed on existing utility poles.

Because it is more costly and cumbersome to lay the fiber underground, technology officials said about 90 percent of the cable to support the Carroll County Public Network is expected to be hung above-ground.

County officials said they hope to gain access to 200 to 400 utility poles, a process that began when the Eldersburg-based Skyline Network Engineering, LLC. -- the project's manager -- arranged a meeting with BGE and Verizon in May.

The network's engineers have identified more than 100 municipal and county government sites -- schools, libraries, court buildings, water treatment plants -- they will offer high-speed Internet and increased data-sharing capacity.

As the fiber-optic cable is installed over the next three years, sites will gradually come online, beginning in the populous Westminster and South Carroll areas, said Mark E. Ripper, the county's chief information officer.

"That's where there's a large group of agencies to be brought on," Ripper told the county commissioners Thursday.

The business parks near the Carroll County Regional Airport and the developing Warfield Complex make Westminster and Eldersburg priority regions. By 2010, however, sites in Hampstead and Manchester to the east, and then in Taneytown and New Windsor to the west should be connected, Ripper said.

The county will own and operate the system.

Already, the three schools and the public library in Mount Airy have been linked up with fiber, providing cost-savings since leased T1 Internet lines are no longer necessary, said Gary R. Davis, chief information officer for Carroll County public schools.

Davis said a business model prepared for the Carroll County Cable Regulatory Commission shows that the $7.4 million network will pay for itself within 10 to 12 years. Currently, Ripper said the county pays $3,300 a month to connect all the local library branches to the Internet. Those costs will be eliminated once the network is built out.

Piggybacking on the public network efforts, the county department of economic development has a nearly $50,000 contract with Skyline to determine the feasibility of creating a parallel -- but separately funded -- private network.

"It's basically to maximize the work they're doing on the public network, to take a look at how we can potentially utilize that for private access," said Denise Beaver, the county's deputy director of economic development.

Broadband access, deemed an essential service to lure in more businesses, is unavailable in significant portions of the county, particularly in more rural, less populated zones.

Broadband generally refers to any mode of high-speed Internet access, whether through DSL, cable modems or fiber-optic cable. Residents or businesses without broadband service generally have to use slower dial-up Internet connections.

If Verizon or BGE decide to replace some of their utility poles soon, that could delay hanging the fiber-optic cable, Ripper said. Verizon and BGE might not agree to allow the network wires to be attached before that maintenance work is done, he said.

A limited amount of fiber-optic cable, known as the I-Net, already exists in Carroll's municipalities, created under cable franchise agreements with Prestige Communications, and then Adelphia. But the county will still overlay its own fiber on top of any existing footprints in the network's path, Ripper said.

"That way, the entire network is owned and operated by Carroll County government, and we aren't relying on anybody else," he said.

Through networkMaryland, an high-speed network for public sector use, some agencies in Carroll County will no longer have to lease Internet lines.

The Carroll County Board of Elections will connect to that system this summer, and the county sheriff's office will join that network in September, Ripper said.

The school system is using the state network to electronically check the fingerprints of new employees, Davis added.

Internet connections for these agencies through Verizon normally cost the county $450 a month, Davis said.

"But when we're able to connect through networkMaryland, it doesn't cost us a penny," he said.

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