WESTMINSTER — By early next year, some residents of Westminster and tenants in the Air Business Park near the Carroll County Regional Airport will have access to faster, more reliable Internet service for voice, video and data services, Robert Wack, Westminster's Common Council president, said Thursday.
"The day might be dreary, but the future is bright," he said, making reference to the weather conditions Thursday.
The City of Westminster has begun the installation of its fiber optic network and a pilot component of it is expected to be completed by March at the latest, Wack said, adding it could be finished sooner.
This first phase of the project is expected to cost about $6.3 million, according to city officials. If the project progresses to include the entire city, the total cost is estimated at slightly more than $15 million; the city expects next year's phase of the project to cost another $6 million, and another $1.6 million and $1.2 million each of the years after that.
This is one of the largest projects the city has ever undertaken, Wack said. Funding for the first phase was financed through the bond market.
"The contractor scheduled a lot of extra time due to unforeseen circumstances like weather, hitting a gas line, et cetera," Wack said of this first phase. "We have a lot of wiggle room."
This will provide any business throughout the park and residents in the Fairway Drive residential area off of Old New Windsor Road with broadband service.
Currently, the majority of the city has access to a dial-up network or DSL service, Wack said. The speeds of such services are up to 56 Kbps and 100 Mbps, respectively. With a broadband network utilizing fiber optics, average speeds run between 10 and 40 Gbps— as much as 400 times faster than what is available at present in Westminster.
Optical fibers are made of glass or plastic, and are only slightly thicker than a strand of human hair. Data is transmuted into light pulses and traverses the length of the fiber, which allows for travel over greater distances and at higher bandwidths — or data rates — than is possible using metal wire cables. Fibers are used rather than metal because data travels across them with less signal loss. In addition, fiber optics transmission cables are immune to electromagnetic interference.
All in all, roughly 60 miles of fiber optic cables will be installed, Wack said. The council has hired Henkels & McCoy, an engineering and contracting company based in Pennsylvania, to do the work. Construction teams have begun work along Fairway Drive. After drilling holes, the fiber optic bundles — comprised of 100 fibers each — will be snaked through the ground. Any disruption of a property owner's lawn will be repaired to at least to the condition it was in before the drilling.
Installation is expected to progress at a rate of 500 feet per day, and besides for occasional "no parking" designations, Wack said, he expects minimal disruption to the community.
Wack said there are two components to the demand for broadband services: business and residential.
"These two groups need different things and are willing to pay different amounts of money," he said. "We wanted to be able to demonstrate the viability of both groups in this initial phase."
The business park and Fairway Drive area are part of the city's fiber optics network pilot phase. The business park was selected to drive economic growth in the city by attracting other businesses to the area, Wack said.
According to a recent report by the Boston-based Analysis Group, cities that offer broadband service at one Gbps — approximately 100 times the national average — report higher per-capita gross domestic product compared to cities lacking such speeds.
"Diverse [Internet] service at low expense is a basic necessity for a business in the 21st century," Wack said.
He said at first, considering that Fairway Drive isn't anywhere near the Air Business Park, it's a wonder the residential area was chosen. There was a good reason behind it though, he said.
"[Fairway Drive is] on the far edge of the city, so it'll be easy to build from there to the other side of the city," Wack said. "There's already county fiber located in the area so we'll gradually expand from there."
The idea to build a broadband network in Westminster first came up in council discussion two years ago, he Wack, but the genesis of the idea was in 2004. At the time, the idea to create the Carroll County Fiber Network was in its infancy. The network, Wack said, would enable faster and more efficient Internet connectivity for more than 100 sites, including Carroll Community College, Carroll County Public Libraries, government offices and public schools.
Unfortunately, it doesn't touch any residential areas or many business complexes, he said.
"[The council] always knew other steps had to be taken," Wack said.
In 2010, federal stimulus legislation that was passed had money set aside for the installation of fiber optics in Carroll County. Though the county was able to acquire the money, the total fell short of the council's intended goals, he said.
"At that time, I said [Westminster] should get a piece of that to get our homes and businesses connected," Wack said. "We did get some money, but it was used to connect the county to other parts of the state."
Two years, later, it became clear that if the council wanted a fiber optic broadband network, they were going to have to do it on their own, he said. A feasibility study was conducted to ensure the network would be worth the cost, discover ways of paying for the project and conceptualizing the most efficient method for laying the fiber optic conduits.
The council committed to the project last year, he said. They identified some existing funds in the budget, but ultimately, they chose to finance the project by borrowing money from the bond market.
"Every year, [Westminster] gains a certain amount of money in tax revenues and that money is used for typical municipal expenses like plowing roads and paying employees," Wack said. "There's not a huge amount left over for huge [projects] like this. The money we gain from service providers to use our network will be used to pay back the bond."
Wack said they are looking at Internet service providers and telecommunication companies. This requires some negotiations and the council will have a better idea who they will allow to use the network by the end of the year.
"We are going to go with whoever we can get to make a dent in the money we are going to owe," he said.
The cost to widen the network to other parts of the city will undoubtedly be expensive, but the next step is dependent on a number of factors, including how quickly people sign up for the service, what difficulties construction teams run into and if any methods can be refined or simplified, he said.
"We sent out forms requesting [residents and business owners] to ask for the city to connect broadband," Wack said. "If they don't want it, they don't have to have it."
Regardless of the cost, the benefit to the city is substantial, he said. The network will drive the economic machine in Westminster to excel, act as a sounding board for businesses and ideas, and connect residents to a much wider world.
"In the long term, we are committed to the idea that every resident and business will be connected to the fiber optic network," Wack said.