Fiber optic cabling nearly completed in Washington County

  • Article by: Kevin Giles
  • Star Tribune
  • August 16, 2014 - 2:00 PM

A busy highway of underground light is delivering Washington County services to residents in ways they couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago.

Fiber optic technology — strands of light that stream information at lightning speed — has replaced outdated copper wiring that linked the county’s main campus in Stillwater with its satellite service centers and with other government agencies. The result, says the county’s Information Technology manager, means the days of storing paper documents in metal filing cabinets are truly fading away.

“If you don’t have efficient networks you can’t have efficient operations,” said Mjyke Nelson, who recalls making the first fiber optic connections in 2007. “Everything is electronic these days, and that provides so many advantages over alternative methodologies. If everything was paper-based and had to be exchanged, look at the overhead costs with that, or moving documents from point to point.”

Fiber optic transmits data in beams of light that travel on glass or plastic strands through underground cables. It has far higher speed and capacity, known as bandwidth, than earlier technologies that linked computers.

The county transmits information in gigabits to and from its regional service centers in Cottage Grove and Forest Lake, and to various parks, libraries, transit centers and public works maintenance shops. Law enforcement is a heavy user of fiber optic, and the county also links to state government and many other counties.

What’s shared over fiber optic cable?

“Pretty much everything we do,” said Nelson, who described the county’s network as “pretty close to being complete” and far superior to copper wire connections. “The same business is conducted no matter where you are. It’s a good solid investment that allows the county to communicate more information at a lower operating cost.”

The county’s fiber optic network doesn’t serve people’s houses, nor is it intended to compete with commercial providers. Instead, Nelson said, fiber optic has eliminated cumbersome exchanges of information that cost taxpayers money and sometimes left them frustrated.

“People can communicate electronically,” he said. “There’s not as much reason for people to drive from point to point — like to a meeting, let’s say — eliminating the overhead costs for that for travel.”

The county’s investment of about $1.5 million to complete its fiber optic links will stand for a very long time because science hasn’t figured out its limitations, Nelson said. A blazing speed known as petabit, which Nelson described as the “current limit of human knowledge,” would be exponentially faster than the county’s current use of gigabit. Petabit transfers a billion megabits of data a second.

Nelson said fiber optic, unlike copper wire, will serve government’s needs at least 25 years and possibly as many as 50.

“It becomes increasingly expensive to maintain the copper links because it’s outdated technology,” he said.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037

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