By Victoria Compton
Director, San Juan County Economic Development Council
I was asked a few weeks ago by the Washington State Senate committees on Local Government and Economic Development, to speak in Olympia.
They wanted to hear how our local broadband effort was going, and if we’d seen a related economic impact in San Juan County that could be replicated in other Washington counties.
It gave me absolute joy to tell them that the years of effort made by local organizations like the EDC, OPALCO, the San Juan Island Community Foundation, San Juan County and Town governments and our ports, added to the investments that were made by our member-owned power cooperative OPALCO and the community, and later, Rock Island and T-Mobile – had shown solid and positive economic results.
According to a recent survey of Rock Island customers, nearly 35 percent of their seasonal clients are now spending more time in the San Juan Islands, eating out more and buying more goods and services. Additionally, not only has Rock Island paid off the original investment made by OPALCO and the community, but they are expecting to make their break-even point in 2018.
The work and investments made by Rock Island and T-Mobile are paying off: we now have access to broadband speeds up to 1 Gbps, and more than 80 percent of the county has cell coverage.
Additionally, San Juan County can now create a robust emergency radio network using Rock Island and OPALCO infrastructure as a backbone.
So why was I asked to speak to the senators? I’ll give a little background on that. The mission of the San Juan County Economic Development Council is quite simple: we work to strengthen and diversify the economy of our county.
Over the years, we’ve striven to do just that, through initiatives like bringing trades education opportunities to our young people, like offering a wide variety of business workshops, and by making broadband infrastructure improvement a top priority for our community.
The EDC started nearly eight years ago on the latter effort – working with area, state and national organizations to coalesce energy around a community broadband project. After OPALCO took over the initiative, we have been thrilled at the energy that they, Rock Island and T-Mobile have put into it, and the results that they’ve achieved quite quickly.
As the EDC did, the board of OPALCO recognized the intrinsic value of high-speed broadband as an economic driver. The data were clear that investing in broadband could help a community and economy grow stronger, through encouraging higher-wage industries and tech workers to locate in regions with fast internet, and in strengthening existing industries.
The story that I told the group of Washington state senators is a story with a happy ending, I’m happy to report. With issues like the possible loss of net neutrality nationally and an overall economic decline in rural parts of the country, it’s comforting to know that our community been inoculated against some of the vagaries of rural economies.