Near many of the major roads in DeKalb and Sycamore, buried in the rights of way just below the surface, miles of fiber optic cable capable of transferring huge amounts of data are coming to life. Two years after Northern Illinois University and a separate group of civic leaders announced major initiatives to better wire northern Illinois, the highest of high-speed Internet access is becoming more common as public and private entities work to create a looped fiber optic network that they see as key to the region's economic and educational development. In September 2004, NIU announced its intention to create its portion of initiative, dubbed NIUNet. Four months later, a group largely backed by Rochelle's utility provider announced its efforts to create the Northern Illinois Technology Triangle. The two, parallel networks were envisioned as connecting the Chicago area, DeKalb and other areas further west, and Rockford via leased and newly built fiber roughly following the Interstate 88, 90 and 39 corridors - creating a closed, triangle-shaped loop of fiber. NIUNet would serve nonprofit entities such as schools and local governments, while NITT would provide access to businesses. By closing the fiber loop, data would be safeguarded against loss in the event any part of the loop is cut. The I-88 portion of the networks was completed earlier this year, according to Wally Czerniak, NIU's associate vice president of information technology services. He said I-90 has fiber along its route but the organizations interested in tapping into it need to buy it. The state intends to lay fiber along I-39 next year, he said, and the hope is that the loop could be complete by the end of 2007. Once done, the area served by the fiber is “going to be ahead of where they would have been” for a comparably populated area, Czerniak said. Areas to the east of DeKalb and around major Midwestern cities like Indianapolis and St. Louis already have fiber access, according to Roger Hopkins, executive director of the DeKalb County Economic Development Corp. “In an area our size, it's very uncommon (to have fiber access),” said Dan Halverson of TBC Net, a Sycamore computer services firm that through a related entity, DeKalb Fiber Optic, is in the process of installing fiber optic lines in DeKalb and Sycamore. Fiber allows for the transfer of much larger data files in a much shorter time. CAT scans or other medical test files, for example, can be sent over a fiber optic line in seconds, rather than in the several hours it would take over a traditional broadband cable line. That's important in the health care industry for transmitting things like CAT scans, X-rays or MRIs. Researchers at NIU and elsewhere also could more easily send large data files back and forth to one another. Industry also presumably benefits. Hopkins gave the example of transferring an AutoCAD file or detailed engineering designs from outside DeKalb County to a local manufacturer. And in an era when containers of merchandise imported from overseas are seen as possible modes of delivering a terrorist attack, fiber optic technology could be used to more easily transmit reliable data about what's in those containers to local warehousing and distribution facilities. Hopkins said that when talking with businesses considering locating in DeKalb County, access to fiber optic lines “is creeping into their list for site-location requirements.” Locally, Halverson's company is the only one that is undertaking a major effort to serve businesses with the fiber lines. With work to install fiber along Peace Road scheduled for this week, the company hopes have about 10 miles worth of its own fiber in, Halverson said, not including access to other links that it leases. Halverson said the company isn't taking a gamble by laying its own lines because customers are signing up to have access to it. He said the cost to business for a connection can be anywhere from $500 to $5,000 a month, depending on whether it can be co-located to serve one or more other customers, as well as how far the business is from the existing backbone of fiber lines. Within the area covered by NITT and NIUNet, local officials say it is cheaper to create a new network, rather than wait for larger, traditional telecommunications company's like Verizon and AT&T to provide it. “None of these other places will lease you dark (unactivated) fiber because it's their business model,” said Pete Collins, the president of the board of the Illinois Municipal Broadband Communications Association and the IT manager in Geneva. It wouldn't be cost-effective for the such large companies to serve a less densely populated markets like Rochelle or Rock Falls, he said. They also would prefer to sell communications services, rather than the basic infrastructure the lines represent, he said. That's left government, education and business officials in the ex-urban area beyond the Chicago suburbs to come up with their own way to get fiber access. What has resulted is a cobbling together of a system by laying some lines and leasing others, and involving both the public and private sectors. “That's pretty unique, by the way, the way we're doing it,” Czerniak said. Chris Rickert can be reached at email@example.com.