When communities deploy Internet access infrastructure, they use their investment to reduce costs for telecommunications, improve local connectivity, and encourage economic development. In Westminster, they’re also using their fiber optic network to boost local high school students’ tech skills in a fun and creative way. The community is using publicly owned fiber optic “magic” to multiply their youth’s opportunities.
Setting the Scene
The world has experienced a devastating disaster. Communications systems are down. Your ragtag band of survivors has been hiding from the zombies for several months now. After finding a generator and some computer parts inside an abandoned building, your group decides to use the pieces to create a working computer and try to establish contact with the other scattered survivors. But will you be able to do it before the zombies reach you …?
Or at least that’s the setting for the first ever Project e-Reboot competition, hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory (MAGIC) and e-End. Teams of students were tasked with rebuilding a functioning computer from old components in a hypothetical post-apocalyptic scenario. The challenge was held at e-End’s electronics recycling facility in Frederick, Maryland, in cooperation with MAGIC, a nonprofit organization based one county over in Westminster.
Partnering for Project e-Reboot
Fifteen high school students, in teams of up to three, participated in the Project e-Reboot event on September 15. The teams, with names like “Free Pizza” and “Brogrammers,” worked together to build working computers from used parts and then use their machines to complete a variety of tasks, including accessing the Internet and printing off a document. Team Detemmienation, made up of Alana Koh, Ben Bonen, and Elizabeth Metzler, won first place.
MAGIC, a nonprofit focused on developing a local “tech ecosystem,” and e-End, a secure and environmentally responsible electronics recycling company, collaborated to create the event. According to its website, MAGIC “leverages the unique advantages of the Westminster Fiber Network to make our community a go-to destination for technology entrepreneurs, companies, and professionals.” To achieve this, MAGIC has three initiatives, or “collaboratories”: Tech Experiences educates teens and young adults, Tech Incubation supports tech entrepreneurs, and Tech Innovation establishes collaborative technology platforms.
We’ve reported on several other MAGIC programs that have given local teens the chance to gain hand-on tech experience. In the spring of 2016, the program worked with local students to develop temporary wireless networks to bring connectivity to festival goers at the Westminster Celtic Canter and Downtown Irish Celebration and the Flower and Jazz Festival.
Westminster’s Fiber Network
At the core of MAGIC’s efforts is Westminster’s community owned network. The city began a fiber pilot program in 2013, but they soon decided to expand the pilots, as a result of strong public interest in the project. Westminster announced plans for full deployment of the fiber network the following year. In 2015, the network was lit, and the first residents began receiving Internet access.
City officials originally wanted the fiber network to be open access. Ultimately, they decided to partner with Internet service provider (ISP) Ting for a period of initial exclusivity. The ISP currently offers gigabit connectivity to Westminster businesses and households over the city’s fiber network. In 2015, The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors declared Westminster and Ting’s partnership the “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year.”
Westminster’s network has improved the quality of life for local residents and attracted new businesses. But perhaps the most surprising benefit of the fiber infrastructure has been the wild success of MAGIC, City Council President Dr. Robert Whack explained on our Community Broadband Bits podcast:
“The totally unexpected thing that’s been a big engine driver of the success and rapid growth of MAGIC is, I never realized how many technology professionals we already have living in our community that drive into Baltimore and Columbia and Washington DC and northern Virginia. And they’re in the car for hours. They hate it. They want to do anything they can … in terms of creating jobs and creating a technology ecosystem in Westminster and Carroll County. So we had this army of volunteers … that want to do this because they see the long-term benefit for their kids and everybody’s kids for creating this thing out of nothing for our community.