The long-anticipated Carroll County Fiber Network is expected to be completed by Aug. 31, and the county could see new businesses forming or relocating to the county because of the network as soon as six months after that date.
The pace of new businesses forming in the county is expected to pick up once service providers are brought in for the network, according to county Economic Development Administrator Jon Weetman.
County businesses have already been in contact with the county about the cost and process to connect to the network.
"I've had small business owners come to me that I never would have thought their types of business needed these speeds," Weetman said.
The county has more than 100 sites already connected to the network, including government offices, Carroll Community College, Carroll County Public Libraries and Carroll County Public Schools. Private companies will be able to connect to the network after Aug. 31.
The service provider market will have to establish itself after Aug. 31, but Weetman said he expects existing businesses to hook up to the network "really quickly."
The 112-mile fiber-optic network backbone hits all the major commercial centers in the county.
The Carroll County Fiber Network is intended to provide high-speed Internet service throughout the county. Gigabit speeds on the network have the potential to download feature length films in about a second-and-a-half.
The network won't change the rural nature of the county, nor is it meant to, Weetman said.
"It just has the potential to really change the type of businesses that come in and the type of jobs they create," he said.
While Carroll owns the fiber infrastructure and the fiber, third-party providers will be competing for commercial services on the network.
Weetman said at this point the cost for business owners is yet to be determined.
"We're working to make sure the market drives that cost down," he said.
Mark Ripper, Carroll County chief information officer, estimates that the fiber project has cost the county about $11.5 million with an additional $6 million to $6.5 million coming in from federal funding.
The county is currently saving $400,000 to $500,000 a year on broadband costs. Once the project is complete, Carroll is expected to save $700,000 to $800,000 a year, he said.
Ripper, a member of the Inter-County Broadband Network Consortium, believes Carroll has been a pioneer in the state in regards to fiber, even as federal funding drives other counties' fiber plans.
"There are not many other counties with this capability. Even with the ICBN federal grant, Carroll is much further along," he said.
The ICBN is a collaborative effort by Annapolis; Baltimore City; and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties to build a high-speed fiber-optic network across the state. The ICBN received funds from the federal stimulus package in 2010 to complete the project.
Weetman said the network is expected to drive down the cost of bandwidth and make higher speeds available for existing businesses.
In existing business parks, the network will change the type of businesses moving in "
because these speeds are available," Weetman said.
The network will make vacant commercial property more attractive to developers, since they will have a wide range of commercial tenants from which to choose.
"This is where it's going," he said. "We think we're at the forefront of it; we think we need to be at the forefront of it."
The county commissioners will consider regulations on how to leverage the fiber network for economic development and turn it into jobs within the next two months.
The Economic Development Commission approved a draft of regulations last week that included requirements for new commercial construction and fiber-optic connections in county business parks that allow more businesses to connect.
Westminster's fiber plans
While the county completes its fiber-optic network, the city of Westminster is entering the engineering phase of its pilot program to provide broadband access to residential areas.
The Common Council recently approved a pilot program that will extend the county's fiber network to the Carroll County Airport and Carroll Lutheran Village.
Councilman Robert Wack said the goal is for every home and business in the city to be connected to the network in three to five years.
Like the county, Westminster's fiber plans are driven by economic development.
"The kinds of businesses that can develop when you have the widespread availability of high capacity broadband is much, much greater," Wack said.
Wack added that the fiber connection is expected to also increase home values throughout the city.
"There's a lot of different spin-off benefits," he said.
Construction for the pilot programs is expected to begin before the end of the year and could be completed by the middle of 2014.
For the two pilot programs, Westminster is expecting to pay between $600,000 to $700,000.
Wack said there is no cost estimate on how much the city will pay for the full program to be completed.
"We're going to do this in as careful a manner as possible to make sure that we maximize the probability of our success," he said.