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OPALCO awaits consumer buy-in
By Cali Bagby, Staff reporter
The future of OPALCO’s Broadband Initiative to bring high-speed Internet to the islands is in the hands of the co-op members.
OPALCO’s Board of Directors has the power to make the decision of whether or not to move forward with the initiative, but they have decided to hand over that choice to the people.
“The resulting system would be owned by the membership, just as the membership owns the electrical system, thus all members would contribute to buildings that we will own,” said J. Foster Hildreth, OPALCO’s assistant general manager, in a recent letter to co-op members. “The monthly broadband subscription fees would cover the cost of operating the system and thus would be borne only by those who use it. For that reason, we are leaving the decision about whether or not to build the system to our members.”
If about half of OPALCO members support the plan by making a “pre-subscription commitment” then the board will move forward. In order to help people reach this decision, OPALCO is launching a six- to nine-month member engagement effort to explain the plan, get input and measure response.
Suzanne Olson, communication specialist for OPALCO, said that people should be able to “pre-subscribe” or say no thank you on the co-op’s website in about a month.
“The benefits are not just broadband – that’s just the frosting,” said Olson. She said the main advantages are system reliability, public safety communication and the potential improvement of cell phone signals.
History of the local initiative
Three years ago, the San Juan County Economic Development Council and the San Juan Island Community Foundation took on the task of researching what improved broadband speeds could do for the economy and community.
An OPALCO member survey in the fall of 2011 showed broad support in the islands. OPALCO’s plan is to expand broadband access to members – reaching up to 90 percent of San Juan County with a minimum speed of 10 megabytes per second.
The recently published document “OPALCO Broadband Study Summary Findings” addresses data communication needs for operating the electric distribution system, the communication needs of first responders and public safety personnel and explores possible co-location facilities to cellular providers. The proposed system would combine fiber in more populated areas and wireless in less dense areas.
Fiber-optic lines are strands of optically pure glass that carry digital information over long distances. The fiber network needs to be expanded and poles installed to carry the wireless signal between islands, according to OPALCO.
OPALCO has fiber-optic “trunk” lines, mainly running underground the islands, in its service territory of San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, Shaw, Decatur and Blakely.
OPALCO staff estimates that it will cost $34 million to build the system, which will be funded by a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service. Subscribers would pay a monthly fee of $15 to build infrastructure and an additional $75 a month for a subscription to cover internet access.
But if you aren’t in favor of broadband, Olson said that members can opt out of the charges and not pay anything, but if they decide later that they want to use broadband they will have a penalty fee to get involved.
OPALCO is also considering the creation of a volunteer program to raise funds to help seniors or people with disabilities or others who can’t afford additional costs.
On Lopez, islanders have expressed health concerns about possible radiation from microwave frequency, which is the mode of communication for wireless technology.
“We are confident that the system we are designing does not pose a health risk to our community,” said OPALCO’s recent findings document.
For Olson, what is most important is making sure the people get what they want out of OPALCO.
“We want people to know what they are going to get and the quality of life they are going to get,” said Olson. “We want to empower people to make their own decision.”
To read the “OPALCO Broadband Study Summary Findings,” visit www.opalco.com/programs/broadband-initiative/.