A spool of fiber-optic cable. New, high-capacity lines are expected to have a broad effect on fields including public safety, education and health care. (June 19, 2011)

Leasing office space in this economy can be a challenge, especially in older buildings, but Taylor Fields is working on getting an edge: a super-fast fiber-optic broadband connection.

"One of the first things [prospective tenants] ask is what kind of Internet service we have," said Fields, a Timonium-based commercial leasing agent for the James F. Knott Realty Corp. "They all want fast Internet."

As work begins on a fiber-optic broadband network that will connect every Maryland school, hospital, police station — and even more public buildings — businesses also want to get involved. Knott is working with a contractor in the $158 million project, and hopes to be among the first corporate users when the work is complete in two to three years.

The idea is to link more than 2,000 miles of existing broadband cable in counties and cities, creating a central electronic infrastructure that would guarantee secure communications in emergencies, as well as service in rural areas where commercial Internet providers are reluctant to go. The system also is designed to save governments millions in commercial fees now paid to telecom firms.

The high-capacity lines are expected to have a broad effect on fields including public safety, education and health care. Officials say private business will benefit, too, in the same way that development often occurs along major transportation corridors. Companies can negotiate private contracts to connect to the system, and even expand it.

Jon Johnson, who lives in a rural portion of western Howard County, wants to use the system too, so he can eliminate the two-hour morning commute to his office in Arlington, Va.

"If the broadband were there, I would be eligible to work from home," he said. Gas alone costs him $350 a month, and commercial Internet providers won't bring a high-speed computer connection to his door.

So he has to rely on a wireless "air card" that uses signals from towers just as a cell phone does. That's fine for such services as online banking, he said, but not good enough for working at home.

The state is just beginning a two-part campaign to link the 10 localities in Central Maryland and the 14 counties beyond, and the 1,300 miles of thick orange tubes full of tiny wires are to be installed underground and on utility poles across the state by September 2013.

Maryland won a $115 million federal stimulus grant to build the project, and added a $43 million local match. A warehouse logistical center for the Central Maryland portion of the project recently opened in Elkridge.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a unique situation," said Rob Stradling, director of the Office of Information Technology for Baltimore County. Maryland is the only state in the nation working to connect every jurisdiction to broadband. "We'll have a dedicated public safety pipeline."

That means in an emergency, every police agency or fire company, hospital and health official in Maryland could communicate quickly and securely with a counterpart miles away, or with an emergency management center. Public safety training classes and government officials would be less rooted to a physical location. If Harford County's 911 center failed, for instance, Baltimore County dispatchers could theoretically take calls for them until the problem is fixed.

"It would just enhance everything," said Reg Hahn, a computer science teacher at Marriotts Ridge High School in West Friendship.

Gov. Martin O'Malley joined Vice President Joseph Biden at a news conference in Washington last week to emphasize the issue's importance nationally, and to promote a national broadband system to boost public safety and the economy.

Andrew B. Coy, a 26-year-old Teach for America instructor at Baltimore's magnet Digital Harbor High School downtown, said the service is "essential" both for students who need the skills to compete for colleges and jobs, and for teachers like himself.

"When you have 30 kids in a room all trying to do this at one time," Coy said, just loading images or text can take a long time.

With video connections such as Skype and video conferencing, or for students trying to create a PowerPoint-style project using a free website like Prezi, a high-speed, high-capacity network is important. Teachers can connect with classes in other schools in other places via the broadband network, in some ways erasing geographic and political boundaries.

Even schools and public agencies that have broadband service would benefit from the high-capacity trunk lines in the new statewide system, experts said.

One Digital Harbor student recently researched what President Barack Obama did on June 7, and prepared a presentation using both pictures and text on the Prezi web site.