By Raymund Lee Flandez
ANNAPOLIS – Five years after Maryland’s rural towns were promised high- speed Internet access, the idea remains little more than a blip on the screen.
Eastern Shore residents have more or less given up hope of such broad-band access.
“Frankly, they’re frustrated,” said Delegate Mary Roe Walkup, R-Kent. “These are not the people that expect the government to do anything. They just want to have it there.”
The state’s effort to build a high-speed Internet infrastructure, promised in 1997 and called networkMaryland, has been slow. The program’s original mission was to provide quicker access for remote areas such as those in the mountain regions in the west and the shoreline in the east.
Instead, said Walkup, the state has focused more on improving Internet efficiency in metropolitan areas near Washington and Baltimore.
Walkup has introduced legislation for the past two years to urge state officials to make high-speed Internet a reality throughout Maryland.
Lawmakers responded, urging state officials running networkMaryland to get its act in gear. They first suspended the operation, then brought it up again, as officials refocused their mission.
The issue is more than one of download time.
“High-speed Internet access is key to economic development for the Eastern Shore,” said Sen.-elect E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne’s, who campaigned for high- speed Internet service in the recent elections. That issue and others helped Pipkin knock off longtime Democratic incumbent Walter Baker, chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Better access would bring jobs and attract good businesses, Pipkin said, and maybe provide telecommuting for some residents.
“Today, that’s a very expensive and limited alternative right now,” said Pipkin. But, he said, it could help ease traffic on the crowded Bay Bridge in the mornings.
The state, however, has been busy trying to connect essential services first, including county and city governments, libraries, hospitals and schools, but even that has not yet been accomplished.
Lack of action has sharply limited the kind of economic progress the towns along the Eastern Shore desire.
“From the business viewpoint, the economic development directors and their staff in general are the ones frustrated more than the businesses,” said Israel Engle, Dorchester County’s technology development manager. “Businesses already know that that’s the way it is.”
The economic development offices want to attract higher-tech, higher- paying businesses to areas of the state that badly need the jobs, he said.
“We’re in a Catch-22 and the local utilities, the service provider utilities, are not going to build the broad-band access because we don’t have people here to use the access,” Engle added. “We’re pretty well stuck.”
For years, most of the cities and counties in these areas had to resort to tapping into the Sailor network, a noncommercial, free Internet service run by the state’s library system, and also leased with other private utility providers.
But there is some improvement in store.
The state has arranged with one utility provider in Easton to open a fiber-optic link. All it needs now is for Eastern Shore customers to jump in.
But Shore denizens may be understandably skittish.
“On the Eastern Shore . . . they’ve heard about networkMaryland for so long, and didn’t believe it,” said Margo Burnette, program manager for the state’s Department of Budget and Management, which oversees and funds the whole operation. “They felt they were excluded.”
The state shouldn’t pat itself on the back just yet, said Walkup: “Why didn’t they do it right away?”