- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

HAGERSTOWN, Md. (AP) — In 1998, state officials announced a technology initiative that sounded, to some business owners, too good to be true.

It was a high-speed telecommunications network to be installed by a private firm for its own purposes, with connections available to government agencies. Those agencies would, in turn, give local businesses access, thus helping even rural communities compete for new high-tech industries.

Five years and nearly $20 million in state funds later, the promise of networkMaryland is unfulfilled. The fiber-optic cable is in place, installed by Level 3 Communications of Broomfield, Colo., and government agencies are connected at six points around the state. But the economic-development benefits are stalled because the state cannot legally compete with private companies providing broadband service 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, a member of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

In mountainous Western Maryland, the cable runs along Interstates 70 and 68, through Appalachian communities starved for new jobs.

The state Department of Budget and Management, which runs networkMaryland, says it is seeking private parties to bridge the gap, but some local leaders express only frustration.

NetworkMaryland “has been an embarrassment to the General Assembly, frankly,” state Sen. Donald Munson, Washington Republican, said. “We don’t like throwing money at projects that never go anywhere.”

Economic development was one of networkMaryland’s strongest selling points. Of 48 fiber strands designated for state use, 12 were earmarked for economic development.

An early task-force report said the network would “position the state well in the new digital economy,” even in remote areas.

Former state House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Allegany County Democrat, dubbed the network’s Western Maryland leg the “Appalachian Cyberway” during a 1999 meeting about job creation in his home county.

But the way was blocked by telecommunications rules. The state of Maryland is not a federally regulated common carrier and is therefore prohibited from offering telecom services to the private sector, said Ellis Kitchen, chief information officer at the Department of Budget and Management.

He said the state is marketing its excess fiber capacity to businesses that can legally provide the service. Those providers would then resell the service to others “at what we think will be competitive rates,” Mr. Kitchen said Thursday.

So far, $19.5 million in state money has been spent or earmarked for the project, mainly for engineering work, equipment, software and construction of local “points of presence,” or access points.

Another $4.4 million has been allocated, but is being withheld pending completion of an independent audit of the network’s manager, Computer Sciences Corp., according to the Department of Budget and Management’s Web site.

Points of presence exist in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Charles, Prince George’s and Talbot counties, Mr. Kitchen said. The connections are used by state agencies, county governments and public schools, he said.

Frederick, Washington and Allegany counties will be added this calendar year, and Cecil and Garrett counties are scheduled for points of presence by 2005, Mr. Kitchen said.

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