In a secured case in an equally secured room off the beaten path near the Columbia County Library, there are a pair of innocuous-looking boxes. Small bundles of fiber-optic cable extend from each, the points where they enter and exit seemingly separated by only a few inches.
In truth, between each end lie more than 200 miles of Columbia County – and perhaps the future of communication in the area.
As of the first week in September, Columbia County’s new broadband system has been powered up and active. In the weeks since, Columbia County’s broadband manager, Lewis Foster, and his staff have been connecting county services to the system, changing the way, and the efficiency, with which they communicate.
The $18 million project, primarily funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, includes more than 200 miles of high-speed fiber-optic cable and five towers. The primary purposes were to improve the county’s communication capabilities, particularly in rural areas; attract retail, medical and industrial businesses with state-of-the-art connectivity; and provide limited free wireless in county facilities such as libraries and parks.
Foster said laying the communications groundwork for residents of western Columbia County was particularly important – there were areas where even Emergency Services radio reception could be sporadic.
“A lot of people don’t realize how rural that part of the county is,” he said. “And it’s hard to put infrastructure out there. Being able to do that is how we got this grant.”
The fiber-optic network consists of two loops – one that encompasses the more populated areas on the eastern side of the county, such as Martinez and Evans, and a larger one that extends west into rural areas. The hope is that the rings, in addition to improving the communication capabilities of county agencies, will provide “last mile” opportunities for commercial interests.
Those opportunities, Foster said, might eventually pay for the system’s upkeep and enrich the county’s general fund. Officials hope commercial interests will be able to lease bandwidth and tie into the county broadband, connecting private and commercial users to the network. The details of that plan and of leasing space on the five towers are still being worked out. Foster said agreements need to be reasonable, competitive and capable of offsetting the estimated $500,000 to $750,000 in maintenance and administration costs the system will incur annually.
“It’s a work in progress,” Foster said.
The system will provide free Wi-Fi in Columbia County parks and libraries, but Foster said there has been some misunderstanding as to what the network means to the public. It is not, he said, built to give everyone free Internet.
“That’s just not feasible,” he said.
Foster said that most of the major county agencies are expected to be connected to the system by the end of September. The school board, he said, would have to wait until either Christmas break or summer, when demand is low. He said meetings have been set next month with Grovetown to hammer out an agreement that would allow it to use the network.
“We’re not here to compete with commercial interests,” Foster said. “But this is about economic development. We see this as another reason people may be attracted to Columbia County. We are wholesalers. Who the customers are remains to be seen.”