With help from a couple of federal grants, crews soon will begin installing a new high-speed fiber-optic system at a cost of more than $8 million on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa will formally launch the broadband project Thursday with an 11 a.m. groundbreaking at the Sawyer Community Center.

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Jason Hollinday, the band's planning division director, said the reservation to date seems to have lacked sufficient population density to attract high-speed data service providers.

"We just felt that these people still need to be able to access the internet, so we started going down this path, working with the USDA and others to try to get these grants," he said.

Those efforts yielded two $3 million federal Community Connect grants, and the band is prepared to provide up to another $2.2 million in funding to complete the project. That investment will provide upwards of 900 homes with broadband access for the first time.

The band obtained the only two such grants awarded in Minnesota this year.

Hollinday said the system - dubbed the Fond du Lac Fiber to the Home initiative - will open new doors to online educational opportunities and provide improved lines of communication. The new network will be used to deliver voice, video and data services.

"Both for individuals and for the band this could be a big economic development tool for us. It will provide us more opportunities to reach out to the world," he said.

"It's kind of like back in the '20s and '30s when telephone service and electricity were starting get to rural areas of the United States. This is the next phase - the internet - rural communities all over the state and the country are wanting to do these types of projects. We're hoping to provide a good example of what can be done," Hollinday said.

The system is expected to comprise 160 miles of main line plus about 78 more miles of line for household connections.

Hollinday said a user rate structure will be developed this fall with an eye toward keeping it competitively priced. Financial assistance will be available for low-income households that qualify.

Hollinday described the response to news of the system's pending launch as "overwhelmingly positive."

Access will be offered to anyone who lives in the network's roughly 120-square-mile service area, regardless of whether they are band members.