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McHenry County's high-speed, fiber-optics communication network could go online this spring

MCC, Woodstock, county, School District 200 among entities tapping into network

WOODSTOCK – A $2.1 million project to install a high-speed communication network throughout parts of McHenry County and Woodstock could be completed this spring.

About 15 miles of fiber-optic cables have been installed along Route 14, Route 47 and adjacent streets to connect McHenry County College, three county sites, the McHenry County Emergency Telephone System Board, 10 city of Woodstock sites and eight Woodstock School District 200 sites, according to documents from the county. 

With the network, city and county officials expect to provide high-speed and more cost-effective services that eventually will expand to support and attract new private businesses.

“What we think is exciting now is we’ve done the construction, we’re really close to having this thing turned on, and we’re about to pivot into this next phase where we’re looking to find someone to help us market this extra capacity that we have to the private-sector business interests,” McHenry County Administrator Peter Austin said.

The last piece of the network that needs to be installed is a section on Route 14, which will be finished when the Illinois Department of Transportation completes its work, Ed Conlon said.

Conlon, broadband development consultant with Northern Illinois University, said the cables are installed in conjunction with the road construction, so much of the project had to be done on IDOT’s timetable. 

The project started when city and county officials realized the potential to tap into the fiber-optic line owned by NIU that was brought to McHenry County College though a federal grant, said Tom Sullivan, director of IT for the county. 

In January 2015, representatives from all five parties officially formed the McHenry County Broadband Fiber Network Consortium to oversee the project.

Each of the entities benefiting from the line are paying for a share of it, with MCC paying about $54,000, McHenry County $760,000, District 200 $806,000, the city of Woodstock $386,000 and the McHenry County ETSB-PSAP $105,800, according to county documents. 

The system also will require each entity to pay a portion of about $125,000 in yearly maintenance costs, according to the documents.  

Traditionally, old wire is made of copper, said Paul Lerner, deputy director of IT with the county.

“It lasts a long time, but it’s much more brittle and just cannot carry the same amount of information” as the glass fiber, Lerner said. 

He said that up to 288 strands of fiber can fit into a tiny tube to carry an “enormous” amount of information. And carrying those high levels of information is what the entities involved with the project are looking for. 

“There’s this ever-growing expectation of what you can do and how you can share information, and we just got to keep staying in front of that,” Austin said. 

Bringing in a virtual witness online in courtrooms, holding classes online, sending large files and having a better connected and cheaper Voice over Internet Protocol phones system are some benefits the governments, schools and emergency phone systems are going to see, officials said. 

Woodstock City Manager Roscoe Stelford has said the city expects to save about $13,448 annually on Internet-related costs and will benefit from the network in ways including having a better connection between the police and the school cameras, better backups and the ability to do more video conferencing. 

Currently, “some of it’s just not manageable,” Stelford said. “It doesn’t work, so then we don’t even do it, we don’t attempt it.”

Economic growth also is something Stelford and others hope to see once the network is available for private sector use. Stelford said about 50 percent of the network will not be lit initially, and will be available for future use.

“We’re in the information age now, so there’s no time where information hasn’t become more important than today, and obviously higher bandwidth, the ability to transfer data is valued by our local businesses and by businesses we’re trying to attract to this region,” Stelford said. 

A request for qualifications has been put out so the group can find a partner to work with to help tap into the private sectors, Austin said. He said the city of Crystal Lake has shown interest in connecting to the network, and the city of McHenry also will have motivation to connect because the network already is reaching the city’s dispatch center.

As far as how the partner will price the network, market it and compensate the governments who built it remains to be seen, Austin said.

“We’re not in the business of selling fiber and getting rich, but it would be nice if we could recover some of the costs that the taxpayers have put in to build this network,” Austin said. “So we get the win of better service, but then we get another win of having a private sector maybe help defray the costs of the investment.”

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