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$160M broadband project will boost high-tech sector

Maryland’s $160 million effort to expand broadband Internet access will help the state attract new businesses and workers to its high-tech sector, government and business officials say.

More than 1,200 miles of fiber-optic cable will be installed in the next three years using $115.2 million from the federal economic stimulus package and $47.1 million from the state and counties. The state estimates the project will support 2,000 construction jobs, but the true benefit could come from the ability to share information at greater speeds.

“We must be connected to another. We must be better connected to our customers,” Gov. Martin O’Malley said Friday in announcing the grant award. “We must be better connected to our institutions, our businesses, our community colleges because it is through those connections we fuel the innovative economy that is Maryland.”

Owners of high-tech businesses said they were looking forward to the expansion of fiber-optic internet access.

NV3 Technologies manufactures cell phone charging kiosks that run digital advertisements, the content for which is streamed from the company’s headquarters in Canton’s Emerging Technology Center.

Ryan Doak, NV3’s managing partner, said the company plans to place the charging stations in 250 Toyota dealerships on the East Coast, including some in Maryland.

“In some areas of Maryland, it’s kind of hard to maintain internet connectivity,” he said.

NV3 is also looking abroad, with negotiations ongoing in Canada and South America.

“Without broadband technology and the ability to hold Web meetings, we’re not able to create the worldly presence we need to create as a small business,” he said. “This is huge for us.”

Christian Johansson, secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development, compared the broadband project and its counterparts around the country to the interstate highways system.

Broadband plays a critical role for any business looking at the global market, Johansson said.

“And beyond that, it’s part of the bread and butter of delivering hospital care, being able to train the sharpest and the brightest students in our state,” he added. “It is integrated in every aspect of our lives.”

Widespread broadband could also be a selling point for companies and government agencies looking for skilled workers to staff an influx of defense-related jobs expected to come from the military’s Base Realignment and Closure process.

“It makes Maryland a No. 1 location in terms of a place you want to be,” said Tom Loveland, CEO of Owings Mills software company Mind Over Machines. “It will make it easier to recruit employees, and that’s a huge thing right now.”

The fiber-optic lines to be installed as part of the statewide initiative will link 2,000 miles of existing cables in three separate broadband networks and hook up to schools, libraries, police stations, community colleges, universities and state and local government offices.

State officials say the project will spur investments from private Web providers, like Freedom Wireless Broadband, that could link the high-speed network to 2 million homes and more than 443,000 businesses.

“If they can extend their fiber out into the country further, we’ll hop on at the end of their line. It allows us to reach out further,” said Brian Oleksa, part owner and chief information officer of the Carroll County company.

Howard County will oversee the fiber-optic installation in Central Maryland while the state, which is contributing $14 million to the project, will handle the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland build-outs. The counties will pony up a combined $18 million as well as in-kind services.

“This broadband grant will build a super information highway where broadband has not gone, or if it has gone, has been too skinny,” said U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat. “It’s been a two-way highway and now we’re going to be a digital zoom-zoom superhighway.”