Dakota County, which lags behind the rest of the metro area in broadband Internet access, is expanding its fiber network and trying to partner with cities to keep up with the growing demand for high-speed Internet.
"We're falling quite far behind a lot of the other counties," said David Asp, a county network collaboration engineer, during a County Board meeting where officials discussed plans to expand the fiber network.
Only 64 percent of homes in Dakota County have broadband Internet access, not counting mobile service. Other homes rely primarily on dial-up, satellite or wireless Internet. That is far less than the six other metro counties, where, on average, 96 percent of homes are reached by broadband, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
A lack of broadband access via fiber, cable or DSL service, could hurt the local economy, Deputy County Manager Matt Smith said.
"As we look at our ability to grow and attract businesses and residents in Dakota County, we're seeing broadband can be an important advantage," Smith said.
Fiber optic lines provide faster, more cost efficient and reliable Internet, said Craig Ebeling, a consultant for the Dakota County Community Development Agency. And if local governments work together to install them they could save money.
County officials are meeting with staff from local cities to come up with what they jokingly call "the mother of all joint powers agreements" that would guide growth of the fiber-optic network across the county.
It will likely take most of this year to come up with an agreement because cities' fiber networks vary, Smith said. Some places have far more fiber than others. Some cities lease fiber, others own it. In the southern, rural part of the county there are major holes in coverage.
"It's going to be a thorny issue, but we've got some ideas and we think it can be done," Ebeling said.
Dakota County's attempt to collaborate and piece together a network is pretty unusual, staff members said. While other counties applied for federal aid to expand broadband networks, Dakota County did not. The county applied for a state grant, but did not receive it.
"We're not getting any help from the federal government. We're not getting any help from the state government. So we have to do it ourselves," Smith said.
But county government is used to handling infrastructure updates, Smith said.
"In the past that has been roads, sewage treatment systems and water systems. And now we're seeing that data is what is important to communities," he said.
The expansion of fiber is driven by a growing demand for bandwidth from businesses and residents. Demand has increased by 25 to 50 percent per year, Ebeling said, especially as more people stream videos.
On a given night, Netflix and similar services takes up 60 to 70 percent of the county's Internet capacity, he said, and that percentage is growing.