Officials announced Tuesday that the county won a grant of about $13.5 million from the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program to increase broadband and wireless access, particularly in poorer areas.
"It's like bringing electricity to the masses at the turn of the (20th) century," Commissioner Trey Allen said.
The Columbia County Community Broadband Network project will include 60 free Wi-Fi hotspots in public locations such as parks, the senior center, libraries and community centers.
Knology, Comcast and other Internet providers will be able to lease access to the network to provide service to underserved areas of the county such as Harlem and Appling.
The grant is part of a federal stimulus package meant to create jobs and provide infrastructure for broadband services for underserved areas. Columbia County's grant was one of 23 awarded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Tuesday.
County officials hope to spur the creation of a high-capacity data center by the Medical College of Georgia, develop a countywide traffic and water-control system, and enhance public safety communications with the construction of five wireless towers.
County officials applied last year for the grant and offered to contribute more than $2.3 million to the project. Officials also pledged nearly $1.1 million in in-kind contributions, which include project management, equipment installation and land for signal towers, according to documents.
The county plans to lay 220 miles of fiber-optic cable and build about 60 towers, said Deputy Administrator Scott Johnson. Nearly 100 people will be employed. Johnson said planning discussions will start next week and construction should conclude within three years.
Last month, the commission authorized pursuing a regional broadband program grant with 12 other counties. That application is due March 15. Commission Chairman Ron Cross said winning this grant should improve chances for the regional grant.