ANNAPOLIS – The high-tech businesses of the Baltimore-Washington corridor could expand into rural Maryland, but for a chicken-and-the-egg problem the state hasn’t solved yet.
These businesses need high-speed Internet access before they’ll move into an area, but high-speed access won’t arrive until there are customers there who’ll pay for it, said Michael Waal, Kent County’s former director of economic development.
“(We’re) trying to go after the same clean and green characteristic businesses . . . but what can you offer if you don’t have (high-speed access),” he said. “If you don’t have it or it’s too expensive, why should someone look here to develop or expand a business?”
But the problem, which has confused and stumped legislators, bureaucrats and telecommunications companies in Maryland for five years, was solved in Virginia back in 1996.
Plagued by misunderstanding, budget questions and lack of a clear vision for the past five years, Maryland’s first attempt at solving the problem – Network Maryland – only recently came online, in a much more modest form than originally planned, said Margo Burnette, the project’s director.
Originally envisioned as providing high-speed Internet access to both public agencies and private sector customers, Network Maryland was pared back to a government-only network in 2001, a move that disappointed those hoping for economic development assistance for rural Maryland.
“For seven years there’s been a lot of studies, for seven years there’ve been a lot of promises, for seven years rural Maryland hasn’t really gained a lot (in terms of) Internet access,” said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Queen Anne’s.
Prompted by legislation introduced by Pipkin and Delegate Mary Roe Walkup, R-Kent, the General Assembly is debating now whether to restore the original plan or to establish another task force to reexamine how to network areas that have been left behind.
The House Economic Matters Committee heard Walkup’s bill Wednesday, while Pipkin’s bill, which the Senate Finance Committee amended to create a new task force rather than reinstate the old plan, passed the Senate without debate on Friday.
Telecommunications companies rejected the old plan at a Senate committee hearing on the bill Feb. 25, saying it was unworkable and too expensive for a state already facing budget problems.
“(We) absolutely, unequivocally support the goal of this legislation . . . the problem is how we get there. The public policy focus should be how we encourage the private companies to do this,” said Sean Looney, Verizon’s government affairs director.
The answer, said Looney and other private telecommunications industry advocates, lies in public-private partnerships, and to find a good example, one only needs to look across the Potomac to Virginia.
Started at Virginia Tech in 1996, Network Virginia consolidated the networking needs of the state’s educational institutions and public agencies, which created a guaranteed demand throughout the state, said Jeff Crowder, project director.
To meet the new demand, Verizon and Sprint expanded services into previously underserved rural areas, an expansion that would ultimately work to everyone’s benefit.
It became profitable for the telecommunications companies to offer services in rural areas, and once the improvements were in, government and private entities statewide could take advantage of flat rates for services, said Dale DeJarnette, Verizon Network Virginia program manager.
“If you’re on top of the mountain, or in downtown Fairfax . . . you pay the same rate.” Spreading the cost was the key to making it work, DeJarnette said.
However, even though companies like AT&T and Travelocity opened call centers in old coal mining counties, and network service in rural Virginia is “worlds better” than it was, it’s still not where it needs to be, said Glen Skinner, deputy director of the Lee, Norton, Wise and Scott Planning District Commission.
Network Virginia has been a “great intermediate step,” Skinner said, but now he wants to go further and aggregate existing Network Virginia customers so he can bring fiber lines to homes and local schools.
The Internet is in the same place where the railroads were in the early days of transcontinental lines, he said. There’s a glut of capacity on the backbones, but small communities haven’t gotten all the benefits yet.
For Maryland, nothing is beyond consideration at this point, said Burnette, and both new technologies, such as wireless networks and broadband connections over power lines, and solutions other states have used are under consideration right now.
But the focus should be on convincing private companies it’s worthwhile to serve rural areas, similar to Virginia’s solution, rather than having the state do it, she said.
A potential starting point for private investment is the 300 miles of fiber optic cable the state is using to form a backbone that will eventually replace the leased connections Network Maryland uses now. A quarter of that fiber’s capacity is available for private companies to lease, said Burnette.
Although nothing has passed the proposal stage yet, private companies could use that fiber to offer services to individuals and businesses, she said.
Frustrated by the lack of a state-level plan to wire rural Maryland, regional groups have borrowed a page from the Network Virginia playbook and have begun looking at ways to consolidate regional demand for network services.
The University of Maryland Eastern Shore has already done a comprehensive survey of information technology resources on the Eastern Shore – the ShoreNet study, authored by Ron Forsythe, the school’s vice president for information technology.
The study suggested creating a network of wireless and fiber optic connections Eastern Shore governments could use to communicate with each other.
Serving the counties’ boards of education, libraries, public safety and health departments, this regional network could provide a piece of the puzzle that would draw private telecommunications companies to the area, according to the study.
Western Maryland is taking a similar approach, and is involved in a study with the Maryland Technology Development Corporation that is examining the area’s options for aggregating demand, said Guy Winterberg, assistant director of the Tri-County Council for Western Maryland.
But while pursuing these options, people need to make sure they don’t get bogged down in details and lose sight of the goal, Waal said.
“What we need is a robust, telecommunication infrastructure, fairly priced, to be competitive with the Western Shore,” he said. “I don’t care how we get there.”