Opinion

Fiber: backbone of a better economy | As I See It

Mark Madsen   - Contributed photo
Mark Madsen
— image credit: Contributed photo

Mark E. Madsen

Special to the Journal

Three years ago I ran for an OPALCO board seat, and lost.

I ran because I understood that rural areas are not a winning proposition for our big national telecom and cable companies. The distances are large, the customers few, and in our case, the geography challenging.

Not only would it take CenturyLink or a cable company years to recoup the capital investment needed, the small population makes it difficult to do more than break even providing service. If we wait for an outside company to improve our situation, we'll be waiting a long time.

I understood—as many of you do as well—that if we are going to see investment in bringing true broadband service and better telecommunications to San Juan County, that investment would come from within. From us.

Investing in ourselves

That’s often a tough sell these days, when public funding is scarce and we seek to reduce our tax burden. But—no government funding is needed, nor tax increases.

We already own much (though not all) of the infrastructure needed to improve our broadband services. Every member-owner of OPALCO already owns a share in a county-spanning fiber-optic network. We have only to determine the best way to use it to deliver broadband service to members who want it.

True, the fiber network was built mainly to enable the Co-op to control and monitor its power infrastructure. But any time one digs trenches, and puts fiber in the ground, one always adds as much capacity as possible. It’s the digging, not the fiber, which is expensive.

So we have extra capacity. Not to every corner of the county, and not enough capacity that further upgrades won’t be necessary, but enough to get started.

Last November, the incumbents (Glenna Hall and Vincent Dauciunas) along with board President Chris Thomerson, led the way in response to the CenturyLink outage, forging a board consensus that OPALCO should start planning to help solve our broadband issues with its fiber network capacity.

They acted with the support of many members, and at the urging of the San Juan County Council and the San Juan County Economic Development Council.

There are major challenges ahead in the process of planning broadband services and delivering them to a wide audience in San Juan County. The nature of business relationships between OPALCO and other network service providers (such as Rock Island Internet) need careful thought and discussion.

The degree to which OPALCO should serve end-users directly (building out the infrastructure and customer service capacity needed), or make its capacity available mostly to wholesalers like ISP’s or neighborhood associations, needs careful thought.

Those decisions will drive the nature of the business, and therefore financial, model by which OPALCO proceeds in the broadband business. As a result, I am unconvinced by the assertions I’ve seen in various letters and even campaign statements about broadband affordability, its effect on Co-op finances, or its sustainability. Those assertions, in the absence of the decisions and planning I just mentioned, can only come from speculation.

The assertions in several letters and campaign statements about the OPALCO board being secretive about finances and using our existing electrical fees to finance broadband are—given the best available facts—untrue.

Speaking charitably, some of these assertions appear to be misunderstandings or facts quoted out of context.

Others, however, appear to be outright political attacks. That would be unfortunate, since OPALCO elections are not supposed to be political and partisan—this Co-op belongs to all of us, regardless of how long we've lived here or what else we believe.

Apart from a vocal minority like Steve Ludwig and some (but not all) of Steve Hudson’s public statements on the subject, I hear almost nobody saying that we shouldn't be figuring out broadband as a community. And everyone I’ve spoken to thinks OPALCO is the best chance we’ve got to solve our broadband issue.

It seems we differ mainly in our ideas for how this is best accomplished, and how it is best financed. I would ask that fellow members focus on several key points:

An outside company, such as CenturyLink, simply cannot and will not make sufficient investments in a complex rural area with a small, sparse population.

The OPALCO board is doing what we all demanded back in November —planning how best to deliver broadband services responsibly to members.

OPALCO has much work to do in that planning process, and we cannot expect to get all of the answers instantly.

But we do need the board and staff to communicate regularly, and do a better job of cooperatively planning this project with key stakeholders, which include the county's existing ISP's.

I call upon us as members to allow the Co-op and its board the time to do a good job planning its broadband initiative, and to elect (or re-elect!) board members that will push this initiative forward, and not derail it before we even see its final shape.

— Editor’s note: Software and systems manager, engineer Mark Madsen is a board member of SJI Library and SJC Economic Development Council, and served as chairman of the candidate nominating committee for the OPALCO board of directors election.

 

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