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Low-Cost Community Wireless Network Planned in Northeast Maryland

Harford County CIO would like the network to provide low-cost wireless connectivity to residents and free Wi-Fi access for business use.

Harford County, Md., is planning to implement a countywide wireless network to provide Internet access to government agencies, businesses and residents.

The $8 million proposal would consolidate existing networks into a single, secure high-speed IP network providing Internet, Ethernet and voice over IP. The project, called the Harford County Metro Area Network (HMAN), was outlined in the county’s proposed fiscal year 2012 Capital Budget and Capital Improvement Program.

Harford County is in northeast Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay, northeast of Baltimore.

“This new architecture creates a multiservice network that provides the government, public safety, education, health care, commercial and residential users a single infrastructure, with complete sovereignty and security, on an advanced consolidated core backbone,” according to the Capital Improvement Plan.

Although plans to build the network haven’t been finalized, Harford County CIO Justus Eapen said he would like the network to provide low-cost wireless connectivity starting at about $20 a month to residents and free Wi-Fi access for business use.

“I think anywhere in the county, at least where there’s enough of a saturation of need, people should be able to connect to the wireless for free for business use,” Eapen said. “That means if you are in downtown Bel Air and you want to check your e-mail, you should be able to.”

Eapen said he’d like to see Internet connectivity up and running within the next six months, but conceded that project delays could stem from the procurement process that would push it out as long as three years. The project might get funded through county bonds, which is a common practice for the county’s IT capital projects.

At least one local newspaper has questioned the accuracy of the network’s $8 million price tag and concluded that the wireless technology might be obsolete before the bonds were paid off. But Eapen said the network is something the county needs and that obsolescence will happen someday no matter what. 

Eapen said the $8 million project should have a return on investment within three years. “It’s not something that’s a harebrained idea; it is something that is a very sound and viable project.”

The idea for the HMAN project initially stemmed from the county’s need to provide bandwidth to more locations. Six months ago Harford County received federal stimulus funds that are partially covering fiber network connections to 20 core sites, including school systems and the Sheriff’s Office, Eapen said.

The countywide push for wireless connectivity is a separate but related project.

“If you invest millions of dollars for a fiber project, ultimately you need to have a mechanism to make sure that people have access to that infrastructure,” Eapen said.