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At a meeting to discuss the expansion of broadband Internet access in Southern Maryland, one Charles County resident complained that the current infrastructure belongs in the “Stone Age,” and blasted officials for, she said, doing too little to ensure remote homes are served by commercial Internet service providers.

The Oct. 4 meeting at the Southern Maryland Association of Realtors’ building in Hughesville was called to allow the public to comment on the “Broadband Deployment Plan for Southern Maryland,” a federally funded report to examine expanding local high-speed Internet access. Elizabeth Pawlak of Chicamuxen wanted to know how the plan could get service for her rural home. She was angry to learn it wouldn’t.

Even with federal subsidies, some places are too distant for any company to find it worthwhile to serve them, said Memo Diriker, director of the Business, Economic and Community Outreach Network at Salisbury University. BEACON helped produce the report.

“I will be the first to admit that after all possible investment is done, you will not be able to achieve 100 percent penetration. Some of it is geographic. Most of it is economic. Not yet,” Diriker said.

Maryland is spending $158 million in federal “stimulus” funds to connect important “anchor institutions” to a statewide fiber-optic cable network. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money also funds a parallel network for use by the Maryland Broadband Cooperative, a consortium including commercial service providers like Verizon and Comcast, which could use the system to serve homes and businesses, said Wayne Clark, executive director of the Tri-County Council for Southern Maryland, which also helped draft the plan. They’ll only do so if it’s profitable for them.

Owners of rural homes forgo some common services, and high-speed Internet access can be one of them, at least for now, Diriker said.

“Do we have access to [public] water and sewer everywhere? We don’t. I think it’s a similar analogy,” he said.

“I am talking about access to water and power,” Pawlak retorted, saying the lack of access turned people like her into “second-class citizens.” She said the government should waive fees to induce private providers to expand their territory, or do whatever is required to ensure everyone can get online.

“This is not the forum for what you are suggesting. Your suggestions, your frustration, has been noted. It’s going to go into the final document,” Diriker said. “The point I’m trying to make to you, in the hierarchy of needs in these rural areas, we’re dealing with a very small number of users who are not having access. This is not at the top of that pyramid [of priorities], and to expect it to suddenly leapfrog to the [top] — if I said, ‘Yes, that will happen,’ I would be lying to you.”

By the standards of rural Maryland, Southern Maryland is well-connected, with 85 percent of homes and businesses having access to an Internet connection other than dial-up, according to a 2005 study, the report states. The same study found that 28 percent of businesses were “underserved.”

Beyond the fiber-optic cable already installed, the 214-page plan looked to “long-term evolution” mobile broadband to reach out-of-the-way places, partly because it would use existing radio towers, which would transmit to wireless devices instead of requiring larger investments in new infrastructure.

“LTE-Advanced is still a new and developing technology, while fiber is widely established and accepted by broadband users and providers. As previously mentioned, fiber is also flexible and can easily adapt to changes in market expectations. It is unclear which technology will come out on top in the next 10-15 years, but it is evident LTE and fiber optics will be subject to fierce competition,” according to the report.

The public comment period on the report closed Oct. 5, and it will be reviewed, and possibly accepted, by the Tri-County Council on Oct. 18. A broadband plan for the entire state, including Southern Maryland’s contribution, will not be approved until 2014, according to Diriker’s presentation.

To read the report, go to www.tccsmd.org and click “Broadband” under the “Business development” header at the bottom of the page.

emitrano@somdnews.com