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Broadband is key to a vibrant future

August 24, 2011|By DAVID HANLIN

In my last column, I explored the potential benefits, yet low adoption rates, of broadband Internet service in Washington County. Although underappreciated in our county, broadband can help attract businesses to our community, support entrepreneurial activity, improve efficiency of existing businesses, enrich our citizens’ lives and allow teachers to give more rigorous assignments to children.

Widespread access and high adoption rates are important to new and dynamic businesses — like the ones creating jobs in this economy. As indicated in my last column, a Washington, D.C., study suggested that there should be concern if fewer than 60 percent of the homes in a neighborhood had high-speed, high-capacity access to the Internet. In Washington County, the adoption rate is estimated to be no more than 21 percent.  

Our community must first embrace the need for greater access to broadband and then encourage greater adoption. I am convinced that for our community to be successful in the future, we have to become a broadband-using community. However, there are obstacles to this happening.

In my opinion, these obstacles can be overcome if community leaders make broadband a priority. Currently, I do not believe they do not see it that way. In fact, the State of Maryland is active with at least two initiatives under way to encourage efforts to expand access to broadband. Washington County is not fully participating in either of these.  In part because of this, the location and configuration of remaining infrastructure is being planned with little local input.

In Washington County, the availability of broadband Internet service is somewhat limited. Granted, it is reasonably well developed in Hagerstown and along the interstates. But, some parts of the Urban Growth Area around Hagerstown remain underserved. In rural parts of the county, service is limited.

In my ideal world, the entire county would have service, and there would be multiple vendors providing it. No place is this more important than the Robinwood corridor. Meritus Medical Center, Hagerstown Community College and the Mt. Aetna Farms development all need and will continue to need increasing capacity and speed to support planned programs.

Recently, an exciting decision was made by the Federal Communications Commission that might revolutionize broadband access. This decision releases unused portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, called “white space,” for use as broadband Internet service. This wireless method of delivering Internet signals will require modified or special equipment, but theoretically will be able to overcome existing geographical or distance limitations without having to string wire or ensure clear line of sight, such as for directional wireless transmission systems.

“White space” technology won’t replace existing or planned infrastructure, but rather build upon it to make the “last mile” connection to homes and businesses significantly less expensive for consumers.  Imagine the potential of Internet service being delivered like a broadcast TV signal.

The fact that the infrastructure system is still being developed might actually prove beneficial to us. A March 11 article in Internet Telephony, an online magazine, described this change stating, “it will be impossible to justify fiber optic broadband (to) all homes, and copper is in limited supply and has limited reach. Using wireless technology can help rural service providers bring broadband to subscribers that might not otherwise be reachable.” Rather than use expensive, less-flexible fiber and copper wire to connect to homes and businesses, we might be able to see this new technology implemented.  

Our community should recognize that this is an important issue if we are going to add jobs, see the Robinwood corridor be successful, and even prepare our children for competing in a technological world when they are adults. At a minimum, Washington County should follow the lead of Garrett County. There, a study of the potential impact and feasibility of expanding broadband access has started.   

Washington County should examine the infrastructure to ensure it will support appropriate “last mile” links to homes and businesses. We need to be sure that the infrastructure will have sufficient size and capacity to support the future Robinwood corridor, Friendship Park or even a free Wi-Fi zone in downtown Hagerstown.

Only if we take charge of this effort will proper consideration be given to geographical, political and economic realities, and position Washington County to compete with other counties for jobs and quality of life. I believe the community needs to define what we want, create a general plan to ensure proper infrastructure and create the conditions for the private sector to more aggressively build the service network. The private sector will then work to increase access to broadband Internet, reduce costs and increase adoption rates, benefiting our entire community.

David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is davidhanlin54@gmail.com.

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