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High-speed Internet could give economic boost to Washington County

Broadband impact study recommends that homes and businesses be given access to technology

August 28, 2013|By C.J. LOVELACE | cj.lovelace@herald-mail.com

Increasing access to high-speed fiber-optic Internet connections in the home and office could be a future boon for economic development throughout Washington County, according to a Virginia-based consulting firm.

“Washington County has, we think, a lot of strategic advantages,” said Andrew Cohill, president and founder of Design Nine, Inc., of Blacksburg, Va.

Design Nine recently completed a broadband impact study for Washington County, unveiling its findings and financial projections before the Washington County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

Cohill told the five commissioners that a national trend shows that people — and businesses — are looking to relocate to smaller towns and cities that offer an excellent quality of life, but most tend to choose areas where broadband services are affordable and support business use.

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“There’s companies now that have thousands of employees, all of whom work out of their homes,” he said.

“You’re competing against communities in other areas that already offer this service,” Cohill said, noting that some areas have invested in “big broadband” capabilities boasting speeds of 100 megabytes per second all the way up to one gigabyte per second.

Planning for the study began in November 2011, when county officials wished to determine the impact of the state’s One Maryland Broadband Network, or OMBN, which was slated to bring miles of new fiber-optic cable through the county.

The $28,650 study, paid for through an Appalachian Regional Commission grant, aims to determine ways that the county could leverage the new fiber-optic network, as well as increase broadband capabilities to underserved and unserved areas, according to officials.

After determining that there would be very limited access to OMBN fiber-optic cables — which have been extended through parts of the county linking anchor institutions like education and public safety — Design Nine recommended that the county invest in “the last mile” to provide homes and businesses access to the technology.

“It basically comes down to what we want to do and how we want to proceed,” Ron Whitt, director of the county Information Systems Division, told the commissioners.

‘Future-proof’ the county

If the county wishes to proceed in exploring ways to expand broadband capabilities in the county, Cohill suggested that the commissioners either establish an authority that would own and manage the additional infrastructure, or look into developing a public-private partnership that shifted upfront costs to the private sector.

“That’s going to be very critical,” he said.

Cohill said the move could help to “future-proof” the community and, in turn, lower future costs for broadband services.

Fiber-optic cable is a very stable asset that doesn’t require much maintenance, lasting a minimum of 30 to 40 years once installed on poles or in the ground, Cohill said.

The county and Hagerstown could collaborate on the project, which would essentially become an amenity that can be leased out to private service providers, like Antietam Cable and other companies, Cohill said.

“We think retail services are best operated and managed by the private sector,” he said. “That creates a very narrow focus for the authority.”

By being able to offer increased speeds, Cohill said it opens new markets of customers for service providers.

Co-locating a central facility and investing in a “modest” amount of fiber would make it easier to give businesses and area institutions better access to the OMBN, but also to national and regional “super highway” fiber providers that pass through the county without any local connectivity, Cohill said.

Through a two-phase approach, estimated startup costs for the county if it were to proceed are projected to be about $2.5 million over the first three years for a building, equipment and other services.

Additional “growth costs” in the following four years would amount to about $700,000, according to Design Nine’s financial analysis.

Using a 10-year projection model, the firm shows the county’s initial investment paying off big time, with total assets projected to exceed the $13 million mark.

The Washington County Public Network, a broadband cooperative that links governmental buildings, schools and public libraries, is currently in use, county officials said.

Grant funding could be available to offset some of the costs for the installation of new fiber-optic cable, but first the county would need to finalize a structure in which the infrastructure would be owned and managed, Cohill said.

Cohill’s presentation was for informational purposes only, and the commissioners took no action.

Correction

This story was edited at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 29 to correct information about the advertised broadband Internet speeds offered by Antietam Cable.

Antietam Cable currently offers download speeds of 10, 18, 30 and 50 megabytes per second for both residential and business customers.

In addition, Antietam Cable offers speeds of 100 megabytes per second to 10 gigabytes per second as part of its Advanced Broadband and Fiber Class services for business customers.
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