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Mapping Baltimore’s broadband future

Baltimore took the first steps Wednesday to securing its high-speed Internet future — with or without Google.

A symposium at the University of Baltimore brought together about 200 business leaders, government officials and residents to build on a process started in late February, when Google issued a call for communities interested in being a test site for a super-fast fiber-to-the-home broadband network.

A blue-ribbon panel will be appointed by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to “identify and recommend a roadmap for Baltimore’s fiber future,” said Tom Loveland, CEO of Baltimore software company Mind Over Machines Inc. and the “Google czar” tapped by Rawlings-Blake to lead the city’s effort.

No timelines have been set, but Loveland — who will co-chair the panel along with Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee — said the group could have a report ready by the end of the year, a time Google has indicated it may be ready with a decision.

City leaders will look at other models to deploy high-speed fiber — from publicly financed projects to public/private partnerships — and will continue to explore ways to capitalize on the local assets that many observers agree makes Baltimore ripe for broadband investment. Those include a city-owned conduit system and a wealth of businesses, hospitals, universities and government agencies doing data-intensive work in information-rich laboratories and offices.

Some now-familiar buzzwords were thrown around at the symposium — “tinderbox of innovation” and making broadband access “ubiquitous” — but it was clear to organizers and those in attendance that a new chapter is being written in the story of Baltimore’s pursuit of a high-speed fiber-optic network.

The competition for the Google project will be fierce. Baltimore leaders still hope to win that competition, but they also don’t want the city and region to lose the valuable momentum that’s been built to deploy an economic development tool that could also be used for social change.

“The narrative has shifted,” said Mark Wagner, managing partner of Baltimore-based Litecast LLC, a telecom infrastructure company, who moderated a panel at the event featuring chief information officers from city and state agencies as well as the Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and Constellation Energy Group.

“It really became clear [in the Google fiber effort] that Baltimore had a real hunger for something more,” he added. “So what’s next?”

In late March, Baltimore joined more than 1,100 other cities and towns in submitting an RFI, or request for information, to the Mountain View, Calif., Internet giant. Since then, the coalition of high-tech entrepreneurs, city agencies, businesses and nonprofits has sat back and waited for Google to decide where it will invest as much as hundreds of millions of dollars to build its network.

The company says it will deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than the Web access of most Americans to anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 people.

Joey Durel, the city-parish president of Lafayette, La., was beamed in to the University of Baltimore’s Thumel Business Center via a Web teleconferencing connection to share his city’s experience financing and building its own fiber-to-the-premises network to deliver digital cable, telephone and Internet.

Voters overwhelmingly approved Lafayette floating $120 million in bonds to finance the project, which is paid for with system revenues. Durel said consumers’ monthly bills have dropped 20 percent, from about $135 to $85, and the network has helped attract high-tech companies bringing hundreds of jobs to Lafayette.

“We feel like we’ve created opportunity,” he said.

That hasn’t come without a cost, however. BellSouth Telecommunications sued Lafayette over the project. The case made its way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, with Lafayette incurring more than $1 million in legal fees but emerging victorious.

Graham Richard, the former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., was also piped in to the UB auditorium to talk about his city’s public/private partnership strategy. Verizon Communications invested more than $100 million to make Fort Wayne one of the first Midwest cities to deploy Verizon’s FiOS service.

Fort Wayne has used the network, Richard said, to offer health care services for residents, performing diagnostic tests and examining the images remotely for signs of diabetes, for example.

“The health care area is a critical area where broadband can be so valuable,” Richard added.

Stuart R. Rubinstein, Constellation Energy’s director of IT and operations, said 2,500 employees of the energy giant worked remotely during the crippling February snowstorms. Workers are demanding increased mobility and connectivity, so having the infrastructure to support that will help Constellation and other business “attract high-value employees,” he said.

So, while Google deliberates, city leaders vowed Wednesday to continue the dialogue to figure out ways Baltimore can move the effort forward.

“We can’t sit here and wait for a gift from Google to fall on us out of the sky,” said Loveland. “This is our future here.”