Testing will begin in the next few days on Anoka County’s new high-speed Internet system.

Officials expect the 250-mile fiber optic network will provide Internet connections by fall for 145 city, county, education and public safety facilities.

The system will be especially useful in the rural northern end of the county in areas that lack adequate and affordable Internet service. Homes and businesses will be hooked up later.

The high-powered connections will spur economic development and enable city or county police, human service or other workers to send data quickly to state, city or other service providers, said Robyn West, chairwoman of the County Board’s Information Technology Committee.

“It makes us very attractive to somebody who wants to locate a business here,” West added.

It took about 18 months for workers to lay and string broadband cable in three rings from Columbia Heights to Bethel, with a spur north along Hwy. 65 to Cambridge.

Final cable splicing and equipment installation is being completed, said Freddie Kight, project construction manager for Zayo Bandwidth. Anoka County hired the Colorado firm to build the backbone network, designed to deliver voice, video and data services.

“We expect to turn it on [for tests] by the end of March,” Kight said last week. He said about 140 of the 145 sites should be ready for testing by local governments, which will then decide when to go live.

The new system also will connect school districts and local colleges over the Internet so students can view classes held at other schools or connect to people in other states or continents, officials said. “This bandwidth opens up a whole new world,” said county spokeswoman Martha Weaver.

In July 2010, the county won a federal telecommunications economic stimulus grant for 70 percent of the $19.1 million cost. The remaining $5.7 million was split evenly between the county and Zayo, which owns the system.

The grant limited the county’s role to building and connecting a cable trunk line to government buildings, West said. The county has reserved some fiber strands for future expansion.

Local cities or school districts can select private business vendors to run spurs off the trunk line to businesses and homes that need faster Internet service, especially in rural areas, officials said.

Nine Internet vendors, including CenturyLink and Comcast, made presentations on their services last June to city and other officials. However, no vendors have approached Zayo to lease cable fiber strands to connect to local lines that the vendors would install, officials said.

Fridley looking forward

In Fridley, officials say the system’s costs will bring tangible returns. For example, it will greatly improve Internet service for two fire stations and the Springbrook Nature Center, said Jim Erickson, the city’s IT director. He said Fridley will save on telephone costs because it will receive phone service through the new system.

Erickson said Internet connections will be more than 600 times faster at Springbrook, which will upgrade from its current 1.5-megabit-per-second service to a 1-gigabit connection.

The nature center also will gain the ability to transmit programs over the Internet for students to see on video monitors in area schools and other nature centers, Erickson said.

Fridley Fire Chief John Berg said the city could cut expenses by sharing the cost of some firefighter training with other cities. By using teleconferencing, firefighters in different cities could simultaneously view live online classes at their local stations.

Paying for the system

Once the system is activated, cities and other users will pay fees to the county to help offset its upfront costs, said County Commissioner Jim Kordiak, another technology committee member. He said most of the cable was strung on poles, the rest buried.

The project’s website, www.con nectanokacounty.com, notes that local governments will pay the county $75 a month for 100-megabit-per-second connections and $400 for 1-gigabit hookups.

Kight said that with current equipment the system — which has three 10-gigabit cable rings — could provide high-speed service for about 140,000 homes, 11,000 businesses and 600 additional government sites.

A telephone survey done for the county in 2009 found nearly 70 percent of homes had some form of high-speed broadband service. However, most residents said they would switch to a vendor with faster or less expensive service.