Better broadband—more at stake than convenience | Guest Column

OPALCO's Chris Thomerson.
— image credit: Contributed photo

By Chris Thomerson

For 75 years OPALCO has met the prime directive for which it was created: to provide the electrical service that is now essential in our lives.

Electricity is so ingrained in our way of life we take it for granted. Internet and other data communication services, collectively called broadband, are rapidly becoming just as essential.

More than 15 years ago OPALCO started enhancing the data communications network that manages the electric distribution system. This system is constantly being expanded to meet increasing demands of "Smart Grid" initiatives that reduce outages, increase efficiency, and reduce energy costs to ensure the electricity supply remains safe, reliable, and low cost.

Many of you comment that the lights now stay on under stormy high wind conditions, where previously the candles would have been lit or the generator fired up. This increased reliability is the result of painstaking, deliberate improvements, including system design, optimized equipment, and improved high-speed data communications to meet the strategic directive of improving reliability.

Our planned enhancements over the next many years give us the opportunity to provide the foundation for additional services that have been identified as critical needs for our members. These identified countywide needs are emergency responder communications, reliable and affordable high-speed internet, and mobile voice and data coverage.

The need for emergency responder communications countywide is clear. We have all heard stories of emergency situations where responders were unable to be called to action, or were unable to respond effectively in situations when every second counts. Our local emergency communications systems are simply inadequate.

Our local Economic Development Council has carried out an in-depth analysis of available internet services and demonstrated that our local economy will increasingly suffer from lack of reliable countywide internet access.

The indicators show that local educational and employment options are rapidly deteriorating as the rest of the world uses available high-speed internet access and assumes that we have that access. We don’t.

We surveyed you, our members, and you told us overwhelmingly that you want OPALCO to take a leadership role in providing these necessary services. No other local entity has the scope, capability, and existing infrastructure to provide a countywide solution to this countywide problem.

The OPALCO board has authorized ongoing work to plan how these necessary services might be provided. We need to find creative solutions to the significant obstacles in the way of making this work. OPALCO employees are currently developing a community solution that covers 90 percent of our county. Being sensitive to our pristine environment, they are working to minimize impact and maximize effectiveness by focusing on a hybrid network of new distributed wireless technologies using many small antennas mounted on existing electric power poles.

We at OPALCO feel that the move toward providing networked communications services for our members echoes the community spirit that first created this cooperative 75 years ago. This broadband project must make economic and environmental sense, or we will not do it.

When we can benefit our community by providing necessary safety, economic, and educational opportunities, OPALCO will strive to make it work. After all, we are neighbors, we live here.

— Chris Thomerson is president of the Board of Directors of Orcas Power and Light Cooperative.


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