AllCoNet Pioneers Muni Wireless in Maryland

Two hours northwest of the nation’s capital lies rural Allegany County, in western Maryland on the border with Pennsylvania.  In the mid-1990s, before cable internet was even widely available, the county launched a successful wireless carrier network that would expand into an envied public model.  In 1996, the State of Maryland offered financial assistance to wire public schools.  They used a wireless solution due to the high costs of fiber-optic cables then. To raise funds and pool grant dollars from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), the school partnered with fellow agencies Allegany County, Allegany County Library System, and the City of Cumberland.  The new Allegany County Network (AllCoNet) placed its first wireless antenna atop the courthouse, the county’s highest point, and launched the network at a cost of $4.3 million.  

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. (ARC Magazine)

The early justification for such a network was rooted in the private sector avoidance of building in rural areas but also the pressing demand for economic growth and good broadband technology being just outside the nation’s major eastern cities.  To eliminate the Digital Divide, AllCoNet looked to provide carrier class, affordable service to public entities like government and schools while upholding an open access model to let private companies serve the public at reasonable costs -- avoiding massive infrastructure debt.  

With the information economy building into the 2000s and private sector interest increasing, the partnership decided to expand the wireless network to residents. Where AllCoNet1 is an intranet connecting public facilities and schools, AllCoNet2 would serve to provide connections to residential and business customers, capable of delivering business level speeds across a large area.   Verizon meanwhile continued to refuse to upgrade its own services. 

To fund some of the expansion costs and oversee the implementation, the partnership selected a “technology transfer partner,” Utah-based Conxx.  The expanded wireless network using Alvarion was completed in 2005 at a cost of around $4.5 million, funded primarily by state and local sources.  The network maintains an open access model for private retailers. (See SkyPacket FAQ)

AllCoNet2 was created to provide that "refused" new telecommunications infrastructure for Allegany County, and it has been very successful. AllCoNet2 satisfies both new (Internet) and legacy (T-1, T-3) telecommunications requirements of businesses and is providing innovative new services such as Open Access Broadband Internet Access, Public Safety Mobile Broadband, as well as being an extremely cost-effective telecommunication backbone for public agencies such as the local library system, school system, and county government. (via Conxx

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.' (ARC Magazine)

Today the network consists of 14 towers providing coverage to 85% of residents and 95% of businesses centered around Cumberland.  Over 40 government entities and non-profit organizations benefit from internet services.  Two retail providers, SkyPacket and TWR, serve about 75,000 residents. The PharmaCare Network connects residents directly to its local pharmacies. AllCoNet is scalable to other remote services, such as public safety and wireless metering.  The partnership hired a consultant to study how much users would pay in the private market for the same level of service and found that users are saving around $840,000 annually with AllCoNet.  The network has proven so effective that nearby Frostburg State University is connected with its 6,000 students.