Progress Report on Broadband / High Speed Digital Networks

As the County Council’s Lead for Digital Government, I have articulated a vision for a digital Montgomery County, proposing policies that will enable our community to lean forward on technology and innovation.

With the rise of cloud computing, there is great urgency for establishing next-generation data networks that will enable researchers, entrepreneurs and government to operate at the cutting edge. I believe our continued economic progress depends on it, and that is why I have proposed a comprehensive strategy, detailed in two white papers, “Moving Montgomery Forward with Gigabit Networks” and a “Montgomery County Digital Infrastructure Strategic Plan.”

I am now pleased to report that we are making real progress. Working collaboratively with my colleagues on the County Council, particularly at the Government Operations (GO) Committee, where I serve with Chair Nancy Navarro and Councilmember Sidney Katz, and technologists in the executive branch, this vision is becoming a reality.

Years ago, Montgomery County made a wise decision to build a fiber optic data network, called FIberNet. Today, more than 567 sites — schools, libraries, rec centers, and government buildings — operate on that network. This is a remarkable achievement that puts Montgomery County in a leadership class of local governments.

Many years of constrained budgets, however, caused investment in fibernet maintenance to slide — a problem that must be remedied. With the new fibernet budget requested by the GO Committee and included in the FY17 budget, the county is turning that around. The $4 million annual fibernet budget, funded by fees on cable providers, along with a Network Operations Center, will ensure not only that the county government will get the benefit of a first class network but also so that the network can offer a market-competitive service for the private sector that can be used to generate revenue in the future.

Now we are ready to move more aggressively.

Building data networks for economic progress

The County’s economic strengths in the life, earth, bio and cybersecurity sectors are significant, and the presence of federal agencies, such as the FDA, NIST, NIH, NOAA, and others helps ensure that we have one of the most specialized and highly-educated workforces in the world. As the data-oriented (including real time video) work in these industries moves to the cloud, the county will need to be at the cutting edge in network capacity, so that the industries can operate seamlessly in the cloud — or the county will risk losing the advantage it has from hosting these organizations as they may shift investment to other locations.

In response to my first white paper on the nexus of broadband and economic development and the ongoing pressure of the Government Operations committee to move forward on this issue, the County Executive officially launched “ultraMontgomery” in 2014, and has recommended substantial funding for the program in this year’s budget. Key markers include:

The County is also actively exploring policy and regulatory changes that facilitate greater access to commercial high-speed networks, including new building codes and certifications for fiber-ready buildings, the creation of a Broadband Smart Map, and “Dig Once” policies.

Promoting access for residents

Broadband networks are core infrastructure, just like water pipes, roads, and schools. Government must take ownership over planning for the future of this infrastructure in order to benefit the residents.

Thanks to funding approved by the Council and with the reach provided by FiberNet, the County is adding 15 new locations with public WiFi and upgrading 17 more, for a total of 65. See the full list of current County WiFi locations here (page 6). At my request, the County has also agreed to make public WiFi available outside in the new Wheaton Town Square as part of the Wheaton Redevelopment Project.

To expand opportunities for people who ride buses, as well as make buses more attractive for those who otherwise can drive, RideOn will soon pilot public WiFi on a number of buses, as I argued for here. The pilot project will also test smart applications in the bus and shelter environment aimed at improving the riding experience and ultimately increasing ridership. These deployments are but a small sample of what is to come in the next few years.

With over 200 schools linked by FiberNet, MCPS is ready to expand the role of technology in education. With strong support from the Education and Government Operations Committee, chromebooks are already integrated into the curriculum for 3rd, 5th, and 6th graders as well has high school social studies classes. The plan is expand the rollout to the 7th grade, half of the 8th grade, and one high school content area this year. Students learn the new collaborative models for research, writing, and presentation projects through Google Apps for Education.

The “homework gap” is a term used to describe how some kids do not have the web access they need at home to complete their homework. The Council’s Education and Government Operations Committees recently held a hearing on how the County is addressing the homework gap and what can be done to improve our efforts. As a result of that discussion, MCPS is conducting further study about device gaps and broadband gaps. Agencies are working together to promote the $10 per month Comcast internet program for low income families, and the county has joined other jurisdictions, including through a resolution I introduced which passed at the National Association of Counties, as well as a letter from Next Century Cities, which I pressed the County to join, to support a new FCC requirement for telecom companies to subsidize broadband, not just land line, access (pdf).

It is clear that no one solution exists for combatting the “homework gap,” but as devices such as chromebooks become an integral part of the MCPS learning environment, we are focused on the problem.

Access in rural communities is a national concern, and more than one third of our county is set aside for farming. This area, nearly 100,000 acres, is called the Agricultural Reserve. Because we are committed to the success of the Ag Reserve, we must provide broadband service to the more than 2,000 properties there that do not have it today. That is why the County participated in a demonstration of 1gb Wireless technology that could be leveraged in the Ag Reserve, and the County, with encouragement from council member Roger Berliner, also negotiated reduced charges for Ag Reserve residents who want to link up to the Comcast network there — a model that may be extendable to other providers as well.

A Roadmap and Reorganization

These ideas and more are coming together in a Broadband Roadmap, now underway, which will lay out the county’s comprehensive vision of leveraging ultra high-speed broadband networks for economic development and community benefit. This roadmap, which I requested of the executive branch, will ultimately bear the stamp of not only the Leggett Administration, but the County Council, Montgomery County Public Schools, Montgomery College, technologist residents, and other network stakeholders.

At my request, the County Executive has also agreed to consider reorganizing broadband responsibilities in our Department of Technology Services, to better align our staffing structure with our goals and make more effective investments in the program. While I initially proposed to create a Broadband Authority to take independent ownership of the function, as other jurisdictions are also considering, I agree that we should proceed carefully here and we may be able to achieve our goals with reorganization rather than creating an external entity. Time will tell.