Federal, state and local officials gathered in an Elkridge industrial park Monday morning to mark the opening of a key hub for the Central Maryland portion of a $158 million statewide broadband network designed to link localities via fiber-optic cable.

The Inter-County Broadband Network is a $93 million segment of the larger project and will connect 715 schools, colleges, hospitals, public safety facilities and libraries in 10 Central Maryland localities with 1,300 miles of new cable. It includes Baltimore City and Annapolis, plus Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"This is one of the most important things we can do for the Maryland economy," U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said, referring both to the estimated 1,800 construction jobs involved and the opportunities for private economic growth.

Three private contractors, AboveNet, T.W. Telecom, and Freedom Wireless, have signed up to share costs to link private buildings and business parks with the publicly owned fiber-optic cable that will pass near their clients. Construction has begun on a small scale in Baltimore and Howard counties and in Baltimore City.

Howard County, whose information systems director, Ira Levy, led the 18-month effort to win federal funding, was charged with administering the portion of the funds for Central Maryland. Now the task, Levy said, is to get the 216 strands of cable into the ground or strung on tens of thousands of utility poles on time. About 40 percent of the cable will be strung on BGE or Pepco poles.

"This is great, because it expands our footprint," said Steve Leanos, regional account manager for AboveNet, based in Chantilly, Va.

Mikulski compared the significance of the hub's opening — which will supply materials for the 1,300 miles of cable that must be laid by Sept. 1, 2013 — to an earlier moment in Maryland history. "This is the same power and the same impact as when the great B&O Railroad left Baltimore and headed west, one rail and one track at a time," she said earlier.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said the project will save governments "millions of dollars a year."

The group gathered in front of giant coils of bright orange tubing and rolls of fiber-optic cable, each strand as thick as a human hair. The cable will also serve less-populous areas of Harford and Anne Arundel counties, said Harford County Executive David Craig and Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold.

"It's going to have great meaning for the rural southern portion of our county," Leopold said.

"I call it the hidden infrastructure of the 21st century," Craig said.

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, who organized the campaign to get the federal money and hosted the meetings, said estimates show that governments will save $28 million a year — money that would have been paid to telecommunications companies such as Verizon for government telephone and computer services.

Maryland, said Ulman and Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is the only state in the nation to organize a broadband program using the federal money to link every one of its 24 jurisdictions. The statewide program is called the One Maryland Broadband Network.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, just back from a trade mission to Asia, said the government role in building broadband is important for another reason. "The private sector by itself cannot do that," he said. "Our job is to usher in the modern era."

The warehouse is run by IPX International of Rockville, which operates communications systems in Africa and the Middle East, said its president, Derek McKinney.

The $115 million in federal stimulus funding, which must be matched with a 20 percent state and local share, was announced in September as part of a plan to tie Maryland together from Oakland to Ocean City with fiber-optic cable, providing the newest, fastest communications capability available. It will connect the current patchwork of systems partially developed by individual counties and cities.

The idea is to both improve secure communications among public agencies in case of emergencies and to upgrade telecommunications in rural areas and other parts of Maryland that do not have extensive broadband access. Local governments could also lease unused parts of their network to businesses.

Officials say the public spending will attract added private investment, upgrading communications and business generally. The network is also designed to aid medical services by providing faster links between doctors and hospitals.

larry.carson@baltsun.com.

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