Bump in the road - County still waiting to plug into fiber-opt

June 02, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER


It seemed almost too good to be true.

A high-speed telecommunications network running right through Western Maryland, installed by a private firm to serve its own purposes, with cables made available to government agencies. There would be enough cables left over for commercial use to allow the region to compete with the Baltimore-Washington corridor for new high-tech industry.

That was the plan for the western section of networkMaryland in 1998.

Five years and approximately $20 million in state money later, the fiber-optic cable backbone has been installed by Colorado-based Level (3) Communications - at its own expense. It runs along the interstates through the Western Maryland panhandle to Keyser's Ridge in Garrett County.

The network includes 48 strands of fiber for use by the state; of those, 12 were to be set aside for economic development.


But Washington County has no access to it yet, and the economic development benefit networkMaryland was to bring the region has been lost in a regulatory quagmire over whether a government entity may compete with private industry - i.e., large telecom companies - to provide broadband services to commercial users.

"We have this line running straight through the community that we don't have access to, and that's the issue," said Peggy Bushey, president of the Cavetown Planing Mill Co. Inc. and a member of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission. "It's not unfair competition in rural areas."

While some local legislators are trying to jump-start efforts to make networkMaryland useful, others make no attempt to hide their frustration.

NetworkMaryland, said state Sen. Don Munson, R-Washington, "has been an embarrassment to the General Assembly, frankly. We don't like throwing money at projects that never go anywhere."

One of networkMaryland's strongest selling points was its economic development potential. In its report to the General Assembly, the task force studying high-speed network development said networkMaryland would "position the state well in the new digital economy," even in its remote areas.

Since then, the state has backed off networkMaryland's potential as an economic tool. The task force "went back to the General Assembly and explained that it couldn't be used (by private industry) because of federal regulatory issues," said networkMaryland Project Director Margo Burnette. Use of the fiber-optic strands by private industry "absolutely was opposed" by other carriers, she said.

Getting the network available to anyone - including government agencies - in Western Maryland, however, has proved a challenge.

By the state's own admission, networkMaryland has been plagued with problems. The project is administered under the Department of Budget and Management, and its Web site states that "networkMaryland is a network with a bad reputation that is hard to overcome. The problems of the past have left it open to attacks regardless of the economic situation of the state."

Munson blamed "frequent personnel changes during the Glendening administration" for contributing to the network's difficulties.

The state withheld payment of $4.6 million in submitted invoices from the network's manager, Computer Sciences Corp., pending an audit of the company's expenditures. The audit was completed this spring; the results have not yet been released.

Burnette, brought in as a consultant about a year and a half ago to get the project back on track, said she wanted the audit not because she believed there was mismanagement, but because the state wanted "to take a look and find out, do we have what we paid for?"

So far, Burnette said, $19.5 million in state money has been spent or encumbered, mainly for engineering work, equipment, software and construction required for local "points of presence" along the network. These points of presence, or "POPs," are the connection points that allow access to the network, and constructing them has been the state's responsibility.

To date, there is no networkMaryland POP for Washington County, but Burnette said $5 million was included in this year's state budget to complete the network's "local access transport areas" (LATA) to Western and Southern Maryland. A LATA is a local exchange area within which phone companies provide service.

NetworkMaryland divides the state into four LATAs. Work on Western Maryland's LATA is scheduled for this year. Then, Burnette said, there will be points of presence near the airport in Frederick and on the Maryland State Police property off Sharpsburg Pike in Hagerstown.

Back on track?

Delegate LeRoy Myers, R-Allegany/Washington, is trying to revive efforts to secure private use of networkMaryland's dormant cables in Western Maryland. He said he got involved because he saw the need for attracting high-tech business to the region while campaigning in Washington and Allegany Counties last year.

"I saw the depressed areas in Western Maryland and I thought, 'what can we do about that?' "

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