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Howard County Expands Broadband Access

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Residents in western Howard County now have the opportunity to purchase high-speed, wireless broadband with no data limits, thanks to a new public-private partnership between the county and Freedom Broadband. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman announced the arrangement on Feb. 9 at an event in Mount Airy.

“We’re going to leverage the capacity of the ICBN (Inter-County Broadband Network) to make this happen,” Kittleman said. “While the ICBN didn’t run directly into this neighborhood, it did pass nearby. We were able to take a loop of the ICBN and get it to the Mount Airy water tower. Freedom Broadband has connected its Wi-Fi equipment to the ICBN fiber, and can now offer homes and business in this area the opportunity to purchase high-speed Internet service.”

David Furman, who has been advocating for broadband access for two years, was among the Mount Airy residents who said they were pleased to have a new high-speed connection. “It was amazing when we moved to Mount Airy how much we realize that we depend on broadband Internet access for any number to things. Completing schoolwork has really become very dependent on having that Internet access connection.

“Being able to work from home — which I know a lot of folks out here do — is dependent on that,” he said. “Not having to worry about data caps is huge.”

During his first couple of days of broadband access, Furman used 125 gigs of data, according to measurements taken by Freedom Broadband.

“If you were to buy a Verizon wireless package for 100 gigs, it would cost you about $700,” said Theresa Bethune, CEO of Freedom Broadband. “This is not just about quality of life or giving people the ability to do their schoolwork or their actual business from their home. It is economically important.”

The ‘Dark Zone’

Property values decrease when homes are in a so-called broadband “dark zone,” which challenges many aspects of everyday life, from civic participation to homework.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 10% of the country — 34 million Americans — live in areas where they cannot purchase broadband. And availability does not mean affordability: A report from the Pew Research Center found that households earning less than $30,000 a year are eight times more likely not to use the Internet.

Many Mount Airy residents who were paying for data from service providers avoided updating their computers, paying bills online, watching Netflix and using their computers for other functions at home, often ending up in coffee shops, libraries and schools to use the wireless service.

Freedom Broadband offers wireless Internet service in central Maryland and a small portion of south central Pennsylvania where traditional providers are not available. The company provides alternatives to satellite and mobile 4G/LTE plans, with no data caps.

Eddie Zepp, owner of Zepp Plumbing & Heating, said that, when he moved from Ellicott City to Mount Airy, he assumed that the new house had Internet. “My wife was a computer person. She figured we had it too,” he said.

“We moved in — no Internet. She went to a hot spot, and that doesn’t really fit the bill when you’re trying to work from home … and you have customers calling you all the time with emergencies.”

Reaching the Underserved

Kittleman estimated that 15,000 households in western Howard County don’t have access to broadband. “We believe a solution like this could reach 80% of those individual households,” he said. “It’s big news. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s a great start.”

Howard County Councilman Greg Fox pointed out that working from home helps ease the transportation burden for many people. “I’m able to work from home because of the connection I have. I can’t imagine not having it,” he said.

Saving Millions

Prior to having access to the ICBN, Freedom Broadband was sending bandwidth wirelessly to the top of the water tower, said Bethune. Rolling terrain in western parts of Howard County makes it particularly challenging to ensure wide coverage.

The 10-jurisdiction ICBN is a publicly funded Internet provider that used $115 million from a federal stimulus grant and $45 million in state funds to lay down a 4,200-square-mile fiber optic network in 2013. Owned by governments, local policymakers and residents estimate that the ICBN has saved jurisdictions millions in phone and Internet fees paid to private cable broadband networks.

“Having the ICBN fiber gives us more bandwidth, but it also gives us the ability to have more consistency, to be able to provide greater speeds. It’s just such a big win for us and the community,” said Bethune.

She added that residents who do not currently have broadband access can contact Freedom Broadband through www.fwbnet.net.