The real story on Howard County’s broadband grant

5 minute read

Last week HoCo Rising did a post on a supposed $72M of Federal grant money being awarded to Howard County for a broadband network. Unfortunately HCR was led astray by some basic errors of fact in the Columbia Flier story he used as a source. A more accurate (though still not 100% correct) story was published by the Baltimore Sun.

The bottom line is that (contrary to what’s implied by the Columbia Flier story) Howard County is not getting $72M in funding for its own use, Howard County is simply receiving the money on behalf of other Maryland counties and cities. To quote from the Sun story:

Much of the money — about $72 million dedicated to the 10 jurisdictions in Central Maryland — will be administered by Howard County. It was Howard's information systems director, [Ira Levy](http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2007-01-03/news/0701030098_1_ira-levy-county-government-ulman), who spent 18 months leading the effort to get the money.

(Although the Sun story doesn’t mention it, the ten jurisdictions in question are Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Frederick, Howard, Montgomery, and Prince Georges counties and the cities of Baltimore and Annapolis, as noted in the Howard County government press release announcing the award.)

The actual amount Howard County is getting is much lower; the story doesn’t specify the exact amount, but it appears to be on the order of $10M, with Howard County putting up $2M as matching funding, an amount which has apparently already been budgeted for. Again from the Sun story:

Levy said it may take several months for the new money to be put to work, but subdivisions that have already set funds aside toward the 20 percent local match can begin using them. We can start next week, Levy said, noting the $2 million Howard had put aside. Now we have confidence to spend it since it's part of a larger project.

While I’m correcting errors, I should point out that the Sun story is incorrect in implying that the Federal government intends to give Maryland $4.7B in broadband funding. (The money comes from a pool of $4.7 billion in funds set aside by the federal government to improve broadband access for poor and underserved communities across Maryland.) The $4.7B is what is set aside for the entire US under the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (part of the US Department of Commerce).

The Sun also appears to be confusing megabytes and gigabytes with megabits per second (Mbps) and gigabits per second (Gbps) respectively:

Many public safety and government institutions across Maryland currently have access to about 10 megabytes to 1 gigabyte of Internet service. By comparison, most broadband services for consumers start at around 1 megabyte. The new fiber-optic installations would boost public sector accessibility from one gigabyte to up to 10 gigabytes, officials said.

A byte is eight bits, so the above considerably overstates the network bandwidth available to government agencies. (And of course bandwidth is stated in terms of data transmitted per second, not in terms of data amounts in isolation.) I presume the Sun meant to say that current government connections are in the range of 10Mbps to 1Gbps (equal to 1,000Mbps), with this network upgrade increasing speeds up to 10Gbps. (By comparison, I currently have a 25Mbps FiOS connection at home, about 400 times slower.)

As noted in the Sun story, this was actually the second attempt by Howard County and others to get broadband funding. The first grant application, submitted by Howard County on behalf of the other central Maryland jurisdictions, was for just under $100M and was rejected. (The Sun story says that the reason was that the central Maryland jurisdictions and the other Maryland jurisdictions weren’t cooperating.) The Maryland Department of Information Technology then submitted a second unified grant application for $140M, and was awarded $115M.

Some final comments: HoCo Rising pointed out that this money ultimately adds to the Federal debt (true, like any Federal spending right now) and is not a free lunch for Howard County given the requirement for 20% matching funds (also true). Commenter Geoff then proposed that Ken Ulman simply turn down the money to demonstrate fiscal prudence.

However as noted above the actual Howard County matching amount is apparently an already-budgeted $2M, instead of the new funding of $25.2M that HCR estimated based on the Columbia Flier’s bogus figures. Also, since this is a Maryland-wide initiative Howard County couldn’t simply refuse the money, since Howard County is administering a major part of the project on behalf of other jurisdictions, and the fiber links and related infrastructure going into Howard County are an integral part of the whole network.

Having read the grant application executive summary and the award fact sheet, I can confidently state that there are far worse uses of taxpayer dollars than this grant. I can also be pretty confident that most if not all politicians in Maryland, Democrats or Republicans, would agree with me. In particular this includes the county executives of the more rural and red counties of Maryland.

If left to its own devices the workings of the market would lead to those counties having very little broadband network access relative to the central Maryland counties, since the low population density and lower household income in Maryland’s rural counties make providing fiber service to them an unattractive business proposition for companies like Verizon. (It’s no accident that Howard County was one of the first counties in the nation to get FiOS.) To the extent that good network connectivity is a foundation for economic growth, in the absence of government support those counties would continue their history of lagging behind the more urbanized areas of Maryland.

The bottom line as I see it is that this grant is a good thing for the people of Howard County and all of Maryland, and represents exactly the sort of infrastructure building that is and should be a core function of government. Even though it was funded by taking on government debt, in the end this looks like an investment that will pay off. Our thanks should go to Ira Levy and others in the Howard County Department of Technology & Communications Services whose hard work helped secure this grant.