When Mel Berg’s biology class at Waconia High School met for the first time last week, the 10th-graders — sitting four to a table — each had a new iPad in front of them. They’ll be using the tablets instead of textbooks all year as they ask and answer questions on discussion boards, turn in assignments online, take pictures of their lab setups, and connect to various research sites outside the classroom.

What makes the connections possible is a new high-speed fiber-optic broadband system that Carver County officials dedicated last week. It connects the high school and 54 other sites, including city, county and township governments, other schools and libraries, fire departments and law enforcement agencies, and health care and community support organizations.

The system, called CarverLink, is an 89-mile base ring with 33 miles of lateral lines that crews installed underground during the past two years and hooked up over the past several months.

During a ceremonial ribbon-cutting at the high school last week, Carver County Chair Tim Lynch called it a public-private collaboration that will allow local government to operate more efficiently and at lower cost, and will increase economic development and jobs in the private sector.

Standing nearby, Sen. Amy Klobuchar called the fiber-optic project a “fantastic opportunity” and a perfect example of how federal agencies can partner with local government to improve infrastructure.

“Overall, it’s providing a higher level of services and more availability of services,” said Randy Lehs, the county’s broadband fiber project manager. While homes and businesses in cities like Chaska and Chanhassen can choose from several Internet service providers, he said, that isn’t true for more western and rural parts of the county.

Overall, about 38 percent of the county is underserved, Lehs said.

That’s why the county decided to build the fiber-optic ring and successfully received $6 million in federal funds to pay for most of it. It’s also why the county decided to pony up $1.5 million in local funds for the system, instead of continuing to pay up to $300,000 a year to lease a patchwork of lines from private vendors.

Lehs said the county’s financial payback on owning the fiber-optic ring is five years.

A bigger pipe

For the schools, the new fiber ring means the wireless iPads will work for the 1,200 students who received them — about one-third of all students in Waconia School District 110. It has also lowered costs significantly, said school superintendent Nancy Rajanen.

“In the past,when we tried to have a lot of Internet-based programs, they would just get bogged down,” Rajanen said. “Students simply can’t run those programs if you don’t have a big enough pipe, or a big enough band width, so it’s made a huge difference.”

“That extra band width is like taking a small pipe for water and growing it times 10,” said Todd Swanson, the district’s director of finance and operations.

The same is true for Carver County’s library system, said director Nick Dimassis.

“In each library, we have patrons who’ve come in and said, ‘Wow, the speed has increased enormously,’ ” he said.

“Even people who do have Internet access at home still come into our libraries because our speeds are much greater and our resources are much greater.”

Competition ahead

That raises the question of whether a public fiber-optic system is taking too much business away from private vendors, but Lehs rejects that notion. Private providers compete in a few cities, he said, but generally don’t invest in building long lines to connect more distant rural areas.

Now that CarverLink exists and public institutions are hooked up, Lehs said, private firms can use the system to market services to private businesses and residents.

The first is Jaguar Communications, which partnered with the county and managed construction of the network.

Jaguar’s CEO John Jensen says the firm is now signing up businesses eager to have high-speed broadband service.

“Businesses are our initial push,” Jensen said. “We’ll also be looking for those pockets of subdivisions where they are underserved in the rural areas.”

Lehs expects more firms to follow. “We’re hoping it helps to bring on the private side a more competitive marketplace in some of these areas,” he said. “It usually takes about one to three years for the Comcasts, the Frontiers and the Mediacoms to see how they can build this new [fiber-optic] highway into their business model and see how they can use it.”

Back at the high school, it was biology, chemistry and English language arts classes that were on the minds of students trying out their new iPads.

“I’m just nervous about breaking it or losing it,” said 10th-grader Tristan Kottke with a smile.