Students at Samuel Massie Academy in Prince George’s County often get knocked off the Internet when the weather turns bad. Something simple, such as using online software, can be difficult because connections are so slow. Something ambitious, such as conducting science experiments in real time with students thousands of miles away, is impossible. And teachers at the public school in Forestville can only imagine holding a video conference with colleagues at other schools.

But that all could change soon, because Massie students are in line for a new tool: a publicly funded high-speed network that will bring the school firmly into the digital age.

The same network is to be used to connect Prince George’s 27 municipal governments, many of which rely on slow, dial-up modems to gain access to the Internet. And county police officers and firefighters are expected to be able to send data and photos more quickly from fire and crime scenes.

Such enhanced online access is what state and local officials expect to accomplish over the next two years with the help of a $115 million federal stimulus grant aimed at providing warp- speed Internet connections throughout much of Maryland, including a large section of Prince George’s.

In the county, the program is targeting 84 elementary schools and 23 firehouses, many in neighborhoods with residents still lacking their own computers, which can make the digital divide feel more like a chasm.

Statewide effort

The county is one of 10 jurisdictions in the central part of the state that have formed a consortium to build new high-speed networks, part of a statewide effort to bring high-speed Internet to even the most remote areas.

The ceremonial launch of the Prince George’s project is scheduled for Monday at Massie Academy.

“I see this as a civil rights issue,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), a longtime proponent of expanding Internet access. She is is expected to attend Monday’s ceremony, as are Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Howard County Executive Ken Ulman (D), who is heading the consortium.

“If you are on the right side, your future is bright and promising,” Mikulski said in an interview. “If you are on the wrong side, it is far more limited.”

Although the new system is expected to do much to bridge the digital divide in Prince George’s, it still will not reach a large swath of southern Prince George’s, where some communities less than 20 miles from the Capitol still lack broadband. There, residents with home-based businesses are paying thousands of dollars to run their own lines or are using satellite service or air cards, options that can be unreliable.

Still, officials said they hope that the new central Maryland network will have a ripple effect, creating construction jobs and getting high-speed fiber optic cable closer to unserved areas. That could spur creation of businesses willing to serve some of those areas. It also could put local governments in the business of providing Internet services in communities where big providers such as Verizon and Comcast have been reluctant to serve, citing low density, and where locally negotiated franchise agreements have not been used by local governments to insist on better service.

“All of our jurisdictions have significant gaps within them,” Ulman said. He and others hope it will also prompt private companies to come in and lease the public lines and take them to what is known in the industry as the “last mile,” potentially aiding southern Prince George’s communities without high-speed access.

Development tool

Expanding broadband, a major goal of the Obama administration, in some ways is the 21st-century version of the rural electrification program that used public money during the Depression to light up the nation.

“There is no longer an excuse for the digital divide,” said Tanya Gott, Prince George’s technology chief.

At Samuel Massie, which serves children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, Principal Michelle H. Pegram said she is thrilled about the potential of faster Internet.

Massie serves a community where 82 percent of the students qualify for subsidized meals at school, a key indicator of poverty. Parents come to the school to use computers because many families don’t have them at home. Pegram said the high-speed network will enable her to provide more academic software for Massie’s 750 students, as well as more reliable service.

“Depending on the weather, the network will go down,” she said. “And it is not fast enough if a lot of people are using it.”

Gott said the new network also could become an economic development tool the county can use to attract new businesses, a key aim of the Baker administration.

“If you are talking to a business interested in coming to the county and can tell them this is right there, that’s very attractive,” Gott said.

The network is also expected to save public money because it will allow the creation of an inter-county “cloud” network where various types of software used by all the jurisdictions in the consortium could be housed on one county’s server, and the servers can also provide backup across jurisdictional lines.

Break for budgets

Ira Levy, director of Howard County’s technology department, estimates when the 10 communities in the consortium are fully wired, they could save $30 million per year by sharing software and ditching aging systems.

On the Eastern Shore and in Calvert, Charles and other more rural counties, another consortium, the Maryland Broadband Cooperative, is leading efforts to build high-speed networks. Gott said that some of the underserved communities in southern Prince George’s, such as Accokeek, Aquasco, Baden, Eagle Harbor and the Moyaone Reserve may ultimately see improved service because of new fiber optic lines that are expected to be built in neighboring Charles and Calvert.

Prince George’s County Council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro), who has been pushing for better service in the county’s rural communities, said the new network helps call attention to the lack of service. “This is very good news,” he said. “But we are still a long way away from a lot of our rural residents having real access to broadband.”

He said he plans to push for the county to hold back on cable franchise renewals unless they “include requirements for providers to give universal broadband coverage for all our county residents at a reasonable rate.”

“It is still quite a long ways away for a lot of our rural areas,” Franklin said.