A new $7.5 million fiber-optic network will connect all public agencies and open up markets for private Internet providers by the end of next year.
Carver County has been one of Minnesota's fastest growing counties during the past decade, but it's lagged behind its metro neighbors in broadband Internet services.
Not for much longer.
Last week, Carver launched a $7.5 million, 122-mile fiber-optic network that will circle the county and link all 11 of its cities.
Carver County Board Chairman Randy Maluchnik called it a "historic moment" at a ceremonial groundbreaking Tuesday that was attended by city, county and township officials.
Flanked by Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, Maluchnik said the fiber-optic network will expand communications, make government more efficient, improve education, enhance public safety and set the stage for more robust economic growth.
Steven Taylor, the county's administrative services director, said that installation of the underground fiber began Aug. 11 and will be finished between late 2012 and mid-2013, depending on weather conditions.
The underground network of fibers will hook up 86 agencies and organizations at 55 sites. They include county, city and township governments; fire departments, law enforcement agencies, county libraries, a regional health care center and other public offices.
Taylor estimated that 55 percent of Carver residents are "unserved or underserved" by high-speed communications.
"Internet service in the county now is a patchwork," he said. "There are so many people using dial-up services it's unbelievable."
The groundbreaking was gratifying for Ken Essig, Laketown township supervisor and chair of a task force that worked on the project.
"You talk about roads, cars, and planes to move goods and services and people," he said. "But information and data is becoming more important than ever."
In addition to linking public buildings, Essig said, the system will benefit private individuals and businesses. It will offer open access on the "fiber ring" to private service providers, he said, who can lease lines and offer their competing broadband services to consumers.
Federal stimulus funds will pay $6 million, or 80 percent of the costs, Taylor said. The county has committed to pay the remaining $1.5 million of the project.
Essig said Carver's rural nature has not made the county an attractive investment for Net service providers, which usually need denser populations to justify investments. The county's public investment in a fiber-optic system will change the economics, he said, while encouraging competition in the private sector.
Fiber-optic cables transmit information by sending pulses of light through multiple strands of glass that are about the thickness of a human hair. They are 17,000 times faster than dial-up systems, and a few hundred times faster than most cable and DSL services. Fiber optics can transmit e-mails, documents, Internet access, telephone service, software applications and other types of electronic data.
Maluchnik said the county investment will be paid back in five years, since it will no longer need to spend about $300,000 annually to lease the copper T wires that it uses for communications and data transmission.
Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson said the system will increase efficiency and security for his department.
"It's going to speed up the ability for officers to enforce, and to access information both internally and externally," he said. "It'll also build in redundancy in our radio system."
Taylor said that neighboring Scott County built a fiber-optic ring and is "3 to 4 years ahead of us." Anticipating that Carver would build its own system, Taylor said the two counties installed a fiber-optic line earlier this year under the Minnesota River, which separates them.
"Once our ring is constructed, we'll be able to tie right into Scott County's schools, their government, and share information technology services and maybe licensing costs of software," Taylor said. "It's all about sharing resources, saving money and increasing staff efficiency."
Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388