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AllCoNet: A Mountain County Connects

by Fred D. Baldwin

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photo of students in a computer science class

Imagine that to save on gasoline, a few people form a carpool. Over time, that arrangement becomes the basis of a public, county-wide van service. Then, after several years of successful operation, the same group finds a way to help local businesses save on their transport costs. The AllCoNet story sounds something like that--except that AllCoNet is in the business of transporting digitized data instead of people or parcels.

In point of fact, AllCoNet is a wireless telecommunications network spanning Allegany County, in the mountains of western Maryland. Having begun as a way to pool limited grant dollars, AllCoNet now provides broadband connectivity to schools, local government, and nonprofit organizations. It does this at bargain-basement prices, currently saving its users an estimated $840,000 per year. Soon a system dubbed AllCoNet2, or A2, will provide even faster and more reliable Internet connectivity to these and other users, including individuals and private businesses--still at bargain-basement prices.

Local leaders expect AllCoNet2 to help them attract the kind of high-tech industry that can restore the economic health the area once enjoyed. Many decades ago, Allegany County prospered, largely because of its transportation connections to the outside world--first the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and later the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. In those days, Cumberland, the county seat, was Maryland's second-largest city. But in the years after World War II, the area's smokestack industries either moved away or downsized. Even after the opening of I-68, which runs through the county, plans to diversify the area's economic base have proven hard to implement.

"High-speed broadband is really critical to a community's livelihood," says Anna Custer, executive director of the Greater Cumberland Committee, a business-supported organization that identifies and advocates for improvements in the business climate in Allegany and Garrett Counties, Maryland, and Mineral County, West Virginia. "AllCoNet2 will be a great tool for our economic development departments to entice businesses outside our area to come here. They'll really look at choosing a rural area where the quality of life and a steady workforce will give us an edge."

Internet Access for Schools

The network that evolved into AllCoNet began with far more modest goals than restoring prosperity to the county. In 1996, the State of Maryland offered financial incentives to help wire public school buildings for fast Internet access. But connecting the public schools with fiber-optic cable would have been prohibitively expensive. As an alternative, Jeff Blank, the microcomputing and networking supervisor for Allegany County Public Schools, suggested a wireless network in which signals would be transmitted via microwave relays, traveling from one high point to another. Mounting the first antenna at the top of the Allegany County courthouse, one of Cumberland's high points, seemed only logical, and so began a common-sense venture in interagency cooperation.

Dennis M. Shankle, director of information technology for the Allegany County Commissioners and Board of Education, and the chair of AllCoNet, says the City of Cumberland soon agreed to let the school system mount antennas on some of its water towers, with the understanding that the city could tap into the wireless network if it so desired. That same year, the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) awarded a grant to provide Internet access to four Allegany County entities: the school system, the county government, the City of Cumberland, and the Allegany County public library system. Although that grant could have been split into four pots of money, Blank and his tech-savvy counterparts in the other three organizations never seriously considered that option. Why buy four network servers when all you need is one? That attitude has governed the use of all later grants, whether from ARC or other sources.

The results have been impressive. Johnna Byers, computer technician for the City of Cumberland, recalls that eight years ago only one city office could exchange digital data with city hall--and that was via a 9600-bit-per-second phone line. Today all city facilities--even a water pumping station located in Bedford County, Pennsylvania--can connect at 2 million bits per second. That's also true for the county and for the school system's 23 school buildings. Robert Hall, who manages the public libraries' use of the network, says AllCoNet handles about 850,000 circulation-desk transactions per year at six library locations, and enables the library to offer patrons a wide range of Web-based services.

AllCoNet also services a wide range of nonprofit agencies. Frostburg State University, a four-year institution and part of the university system of Maryland, is connected to the network, as are half a dozen other educational entities and about 35 community organizations, from the Allegany Arts Council to the YMCA. Various regional authorities, like the governing body of the Greater Cumberland Regional Airport, are also connected.

In 2003 the county contracted with independent consultants to find out what AllCoNet-quality service would cost its users on the open market. The answer: $70,000 more per month than they are now paying.

Connecting Businesses

Commercial high-speed Internet access has been available in Allegany County for several years, but only for firms and organizations able to pay premium prices. Area business and political leaders asked major telecommunications carriers for faster, cheaper service. They were told, plausibly enough, that distance and terrain made laying miles of fiber-optic cable too expensive, especially in a largely rural county with a relatively thin customer base. There seemed to be no likelihood that broadband telecommunications rates would ever be as low as those available to metropolitan areas like Baltimore and Washington.

All those considerations led local leaders to take another look at AllCoNet and to ask Jeff Blank and his fellow technicians for help. Jim Stakem, president of the Allegany County Commission, says: "A lot of people were asking, 'If this is working so well for our schools, why can't it work for our businesses?' These tech brains came up with the answer. It can."

The "tech brains," having worked closely together for several years, hammered out the basic concept of AllCoNet2 over a working lunch. Beth Thomas, Allegany County's information technology coordinator, still has the first draft of the network design for AllCoNet2--scribbled on the back of the restaurant's place mat.

The technical challenges in AllCoNet2's design and construction were substantial. One of the biggest was finding a low-cost way to interface the electronic hubs that route traffic within a wireless intranet to the "big pipes" (fiber-optic landlines) that carry long-distance Internet traffic. "Telephone companies put them together in something called a central office," Blank says. "What we needed was a central office in a box." After considerable searching, Blank located a vendor who could provide the sophisticated hardware in an affordable package.

Business issues associated with AllCoNet2 were also a challenge, and some details are yet to be resolved. It's agreed that AllCoNet will not retail connectivity. Instead it'll lease bandwidth to various Internet service providers, who'll sell service directly to residential and business customers. For example, Frostburg State University, located in the western end of the county, recently began leasing AllCoNet bandwidth and now offers high-speed access at off-campus student housing at an estimated $5 per connection per month.

S. Schwab Company, a designer and distributor of children's clothing, is a pilot business customer for AllCoNet2. The company employs about 300 workers at two locations in Allegany County, making it one of the county's largest employers. It has offices in New York, Dallas, and Hong Kong and deals with suppliers around the world, many of them in China. It also monitors orders and remittances from retail outlets in metropolitan areas around the nation, all via the Internet. Doug Schwab, the firm's chief information officer, says, "In this day and age, it would be impossible to do business without access to the Internet and electronic data interchange. Reliability is critical. Every minute the system is down, we're losing money." Schwab says the company's AllCoNet2 connectivity has saved it thousands of dollars, and reliability has met all expectations. "If there was ever a problem, Jeff was on it," Schwab says. "It's really incredible what [the AllCoNet team] has done."

Even before becoming fully operational (which should happen by August 2005), AllCoNet2 is beginning to have a positive economic impact. Private telecommunications carriers, looking at the prospect of losing a potentially valuable market to a public-private hybrid service, are talking about offering competitive rates. Shankle, the AllCoNet chair and county/public school system IT chief, hopes that some of the big names in the telecommunications industry will choose to become ISPs via the AllCoNet2 network. County commissioner Stakem doesn't conceal his pleasure at being invited to dinner by executives who once brushed off pleas for cheaper service. "I think a lot of those big companies didn't think we could do it," he says. "Guess what? Now some of them are saying, 'We think maybe we can do something for you down there.'

Richard Harris, manager of project services for the Allegany County Department of Economic Development, notes that the long-range goal of his agency and its various partners is to attract high-tech and bio-tech firms that can provide the basis for a diversified economy. He points out that Allegany County and nearby counties will be more than competitive with metropolitan areas with respect to its skilled labor force, work ethic, and quality of life issues. Affordable access to high-speed telecommunications will also be crucial.

"We feel this is the infrastructure of the twenty-first century," Harris says. "If we're not connected, we'll stagnate."

A High-Tech Cooperative

AllCoNet is an example of what economists call "demand aggregation," a high-tech version of a buyer's cooperative. To understand what replicating this kind of system involves requires noting one challenge that AllCoNet's architects did not faceturf battles among their respective agencies. The network's growth often required decisions that would give one agency or another the lion's share of some grant or, conversely, would require one agency or another to commit most of the necessary resources. In such cases, the AllCoNet participants say, decisions were made solely on their technical and economic merits. Everyone trusted that the next sticky issue would be decided with equal objectivity.

As of March 2005, AllCoNet still had no staff beyond part-time support from technical staff of the four partnering entities. The sophisticated hardware that provides the nerve center of the operation is housed within the administrative offices of the school system.

Allegany County's elected officials and senior administrators, seeing the results, have had the good judgment to let their techies carry the ball, running interference when political support is needed beyond the county level. Beth Thomas, the county's information technology coordinator, says this results-oriented approach holds the real key to AllCoNet's success. "If any of the partners were in it for the glory of their organization," she says, "it wouldn't work."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

July 2005