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The suburbs are wired.

High-speed Internet access is available to more than nine of every 10 households in Montgomery County, making it one of the nation’s most connected communities.

“Government [online] services will go where the technology enables,” said Gary H. Arlen, whose Bethesda-based research company Arlen Communications LLC has monitored industry and government information-technology trends for more than two decades. “We are one of those rare markets with multiple sources for broadband, both wired and wireless.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s annual look at broadband penetration found cable-television services were within reach of 93 percent of Montgomery’s households and newer, fiber-optic conduits were available to 78 percent of the county’s homes last year.

Commercial Internet service providers closely guard customer subscription data, but analysts say the pace of broadband access connections is accelerating nationwide.

Seventy percent of adults have an Internet connection at home, up 4 percent from a year earlier, according to a survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project released in late August.

As wireless phone companies upgrade their networks and adjust pricing, more customers are expected to access the Internet with wireless smartphones, tablets and other portable devices, analysts say.

At the same time, gaps remain because of escalating monthly costs, the location of cables and transmission towers.

“Anecdotally, there are places in my house where my wireless service doesn’t work, and I’ll walk 20 feet to another room and it does,” Arlen said. “Those are infrastructure issues that are beyond the grasp of local governments.”

Reliability is improving. A separate federal study published last winter confirmed most Internet providers were delivering on the guarantees of speed — about 96 percent of the time, the advertised speed was being met during prime-use hours, when demand is greatest.

As performance increases, so do prices, even in markets with fierce competition. That poses a problem for government services online, since some families have limited access, having to rely on often-crowded libraries or government centers for Internet-connected computers. A springtime Commerce Department report showed less than half of U.S. households with incomes less than $25,000 a year had broadband connections.

“Clearly, there is the question of affordability,” Arlen said. “The poor can get exploited and can’t get access.”

Maryland is one of six states participating in a test program funded by the FCC to provide wireless broadband access to the poor, similar to a generations-old “lifeline service” that subsidized dial-up telephone service. Findings are due within a year.



lbatzler@gazette.net