By Len Lazarick
Federal, state and county officials Monday celebrated the kick-off of the 10-jurisdiction Inter-County Broadband Network that will spend $72 million in federal stimulus funds to connect hospitals, schools, police stations and major government facilities in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
Much of the area is already served by private cable broadband such as Comcast and Verizon, but the new network will be owned by the governments, which hope to save millions they’ve been paying in phone and Internet fees.
Another $43 million in federal funds will be used to extend fast Internet connections to rural areas of Maryland.
Free-market advocates, and more recently congressional Republicans, have been critical of the use of the stimulus money in areas already served by broadband. But the mostly Democratic officials at the event in an Elkridge warehouse praised the program as a way to create jobs and improve government communications.
Most gave credit to Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, as the key champion of the national program, which set aside $7 billion in stimulus dollars for the broadband initiative in 2009.
“She was the one who made it happen,” said Lawrence Strickland, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which doled out the grants. “She is such a smart and tireless fighter.”
Strickland noted it was the only grant in the country that connected all the counties in a state.
Mikulski likened the project to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which built the first railroad in the country in the 19th century. She said the broadband will help “build the new economy,” in addition to providing 1,900 construction jobs.
“The private sector by itself cannot do this,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman had led the effort to put together the Inter-County Broadband network. But Strickland said the initial application was sent back so that the rural areas of the state could benefit as well.
Anne Arundel County Executive John Leopold said the funding should bring fiber optic cable service to the rural southern part of his county. It will also help bring fast internet service to areas of Baltimore City.
Ulman said three private contractors have already signed on to provide the “last mile” of cable connections to homes and businesses. He said the project will also connect 2,600 miles of government cable so that emergency responders can work together better.
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said the project will save money in the long run as the county will own the lines that connect its agencies.
Randolph May of the Free State Foundation, which closely follows national telecommunications policy, said, “The most controversial part of the program is that they awarded a substantial amount of money to places that already had existing broadband providers.”
May said, “In my view, the money should be used to build facilities in currently underserved areas,” and that the government ought to award the money through “reverse auctions” to the lowest bidders.
But Nick Manis, who represents the Cable Telecommunications Association of Maryland, Delaware and D.C., said he had not heard from his member clients about the broadband awards. “So it’s not even on my radar screen,” Manis said.
Ira Levy, head of information technology for Howard County, will be overseeing much of the project. He said current internet cable providers often have capacity issues and expensive lease lines.
The consortium could look at leasing some of the fiber optic cable that was built years ago and is still “dark” or unused. But, at least in the case of one company, “Verizon has a policy not to lease out dark fiber,” Levy said.