Anoka County's speedy new Internet system is humming among 145 city, county, school and other public buildings, bringing faster service to library patrons and other computer and mobile device users.
Various facilities, including fire departments and two colleges, have been trying out their new capabilities since the 287-mile fiber optic cable went live this summer.
"This was a huge step toward getting the county better connected," said Susan Vreeland, manager of the county's Internet technology department. "It's been a big project."
Besides offering faster Internet searches for county library patrons and others, the $19 million broadband system has meant county computers are working better in the mornings, when they were sometimes slowed because overnight backup data storage was still finishing up. The backup that used to take at least 10 hours every night now takes about 30 to 60 minutes, Vreeland said. One of the places connected to the cable is Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley, where visitors have gained Wi-Fi access.
The new system "is a lot faster," said Tara Rogness, lead naturalist at Springbrook. She said getting Google results on the old system took so long that she'd go find something else to do while the computer retrieved information. Now a data search takes seconds.
"It's helped our productivity when we need to look things up for curriculum writing or getting schools scheduled [for field trips]," Rogness said.
The city of Fridley has removed data storage equipment at Springbrook because the building is now connected by cable to City Hall's electronic storage server, said Jim Erickson, information technology director for the city. The cable also provides Internet phone connections at Springbrook, allowing the city to discontinue its previous phone service. The savings almost cover the monthly $987 user fee Fridley pays the county, Erickson said.
The system will be especially useful in the rural northern end of the county in areas that lack adequate Internet service. Vreeland noted that some schools, including Centennial, St. Francis and Columbia Heights high schools, are now enjoying high-speed hookups.
Anoka County paid about $3 million of the $19 million cost of the system; 70 percent of the total was covered by a federal stimulus grant. The county controls 25 percent of cable fibers, some reserved for future use. The county will recover some of its costs by charging a user fee to cities, schools and other public agencies on the cable network.
The 1- to 2-inch-thick cable is owned by Zayo Bandwidth, which installed the network and also paid about $3 million of the cost. The Boulder, Colo., company took about 18 months to hang the cable on poles or bury it underground in three, large 10 gigabit-capacity rings stretching from Columbia Heights to St. Francis, and Ramsey to Centerville, with a spur running north along Hwy. 65 to Cambridge.
Zayo will lease fibers to large businesses, including local providers of Internet, cable television and phone service. Those last-mile providers, which are just beginning to market their services, may install cable spurs to homes and small businesses.
The Centennial Fire District's main office in Lino Lakes now has a high-speed computer and phone connection to its two remote fire stations in Circle Pines and Centerville, said Fire Chief Jerry Streich. The two stations used to have a slower Internet connection.
District phone and Internet operating costs have been cut in half from $400 to $187 a month, the fee the district pays Anoka County, Streich said. He noted that if a storm knocked out power in his Lino Lakes office, he could plug his computer into a cable outlet at another fire department or location on the network and still function normally, a handy backup in an emergency.
The cable system has made a big difference for the Fridley Senior Center, where registering people for a class or activity was a slow process with the old computer system that connected to City Hall data banks about half a mile away, said center director Connie Thompson. "I used to say it was chipmunks who were bringing the data to us from City Hall and taking it back there," she said.
The new broadband arrived in time for last week's big sign-up night at the senior center.