The publicly owned fiber optic network of Dakota County, Minnesota, and of cities within its borders may soon come under the oversight of a local joint powers board.
David Asp, County Collaboration Engineer, said the County started putting the network together in May of 1998. It has grown from 20 miles in 2005 to 112 miles in 2015, and then to 270 miles in 2016. The network provides speeds of up to 10 Gigabits per second (Gbps) download.
This news marks a coming of age for the County’s 10-year-old Internet network which, together with the cities' related infrastructure, now spans 270 miles. The County network serves hundreds of public facilities and operations including county buildings, city halls, libraries, schools and more than 350 traffic control signals.
The County and 11 cities within its jurisdiction are now reviewing whether to approve a limited joint powers agreement that would have them inventory their fiber optic infrastructure to find out "what do we have and what are gaps in the system," said Matt Smith, Dakota County deputy manager. Their second objective is to develop a detailed financing system to operate an integrated Internet network, he said.
Asp said he expects the County and the cities will decide by April whether to take this first step in forming the joint powers alliance.
After these studies, the County and cities are then expected to decide if they want to participate in a broader joint powers agreement that would establish the Dakota Broadband Board. If the answer is "Yes," the joint powers board could begin operations in early 2017, Asp said.
Duties of the Board could include establishing policies, procedures, and pricing on leasing the network’s dark fiber, Asp said. Dark fiber is fiber-optic cable that is laid underground but currently not in use, and thus is dormant, or “dark.”
Dakota County, Dakota County Development Agency, Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan, Farmington, Hastings, Inver Grove Heights, Lakeville, Mendota Heights, Rosemount, South St. Paul and West St. Paul are reviewing the initial JPA.
Promoting Economic Development
Asp recently told us that one major role of a joint powers board would be figuring out how to use the dark fiber (unused strands) from Dakota County’s Internet network to promote economic development. That could include extending the network to industrial parks, new housing developments, and possibly residential neighborhoods.
“We are trying to get the city councils to work together to provide guidance to the County on what to do for the future use,” Asp said. “We are trying to put as many dots on the [Internet network] map so we can bring the cost down.”
Asp said as the County continues to extend its fiber network to more public buildings; it also wants to see how to make it available to businesses and residents. "That is a political question that we are trying to answer and we are not there yet," he said.
Currently, Dakota County plans to spend about $4 million to grow the publicly owned network by about another 100 miles in 2016, Asp told us.
Since launching its fiber network 10 years ago, Dakota County has raised Internet speeds from 1.5 Mbps to now up to 10 Gbps in multiple locations, Asp said.
More Fiber Upgrades Along County Roads.
As in prior years, Dakota County has taken advantage of transportation projects and its “dig once” policy to install conduit and fiber. “We are enhancing what we have got by replacing the old fiber and putting in the new fiber,” he told us.
One of those projects is a 12-and-a-half-mile stretch along Highway 42, from Burnsville to Rosemount. “The copper strands have corroded and so we are replacing those with 288 strands of fiber optic cable and putting in extra conduit,” Asp said.
The County is also doing similar fiber optic upgrades along Cliff Road in Eagan and Robert Street in West St. Paul.
Also, Dakota County is extending its network access reach to about a half dozen of its parks so they are equipped with Wi-Fi. Locations include Lebanon Hills Park in Eagan and Spring Lake Park Reserve in Hastings.
To learn more about Dakota County's publicly owned network and some of its benefits, read our 2014 report All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access.