Federal funding soon will provide Internet access to all of Columbia County.
During a Tuesday press conference, officials announced that the county won a $13.5 million Broadband Technology Opportunity Program grant to increase broadband and wireless access to the Web throughout the county.
"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. Also, privately-owned Internet carriers will be able to lease access to the network to provide services to areas of the county without broadband Web access, such as Harlem and Appling.
In addition to providing easily accessible Internet services, the broadband network might also create such economic development opportunities as the construction 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 through the construction of five wireless towers.
The Columbia County grant was one of 23 awarded last week by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. More than 2,000 applications for the grant were submitted from counties and cities throughout the country, said Doug Wilson of Engineering Associates Inc., which will consult the county on the project.
"This is a big thing," commission Chairman Ron Cross said. "This is something every county in Georgia would like to have."
Officials applied last year for the grant, which required a 20-percent match commitment by applicants. County officials agreed to contribute more than $2.3 million to the project, along with nearly $1.1 million in in-kind contributions that include project management, equipment installation and land for signal towers, according to county documents.
The county plans to lay 220 miles of fiber optic cable and construct about 60 towers throughout the county, said Deputy Administrator Scott Johnson.
The grant is part of a federal stimulus package meant to create jobs. Building the broadband network will employ nearly 100 people.
Johnson said planning discussions will start this week, and the construction phase of the project should conclude within three years.
Last month, the commission also authorized pursuing a regional broadband grant with 12 other counties. The application for that grant is due March 15.
Cross said that Columbia County winning the local grant should improve the area's chances for receiving the regional grant.
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