by WALLY GUDGELL
Although they were able to get 900 members to invest up front, the 50 percent membership needed in advance was a daunting task. These initial investments ($90/membership) have been refunded to those individuals. Instead, OPALCO has shifted to a more conservative plan, which may be more doable without a huge upfront financial outlay.
The 900 members who signed up have helped bring this issue to the fore, making it clear that there is significant interest in improving internet service in the islands. The new plan has its advantages. OPALCO can work with existing local services such as CenturyLink, Islands Network (OPALCO’s own fiber provider), Rock Island, The Computer Place, Orcas Online and others. OPALCO will lay fiber optic cable for these other providers to utilize and hire an engineer specifically to manage the Broadband Initiative and Island Network. By providing infrastructure and leasing it as an open network (with no preferential or exclusive access), competition will be encouraged, helping with rate levels and providing incentives to provide service to more isolated areas where DSL will not be as effective.
There are some drawbacks. It will take longer to implement and will impact fewer businesses and households. While about two thirds of the islands will eventually be covered, more remote areas will have to work with a local ISP and potentially pay more for service. DSL coverage for homes that are further than 15,000 feet from CenturyLink fiber-served distribution hubs will be challenging. Options for coverage may include wireless solutions from Rock Island or Orcas Online, or some homeowners may need to pay for fiber to be run to their homes by Islands Network (fiber direct is costly, estimated at $20/foot).
The bottom line is that things are looking up for high speed broadband. In the real estate market, it has become clear that this is an essential service, and property values are being seriously affected. Even people already here are moving to better broadband areas and new people are focusing on the highest speed areas available. Recently, transactions in process have been known to fail when the lack of high speed internet is discovered. In San Juan County alone the lack of high speed broadband could impact values to the tune of tens of millions of dollars or even much more as demand increases.
Broadband is crucial for keeping San Juan County current, allowing people to work from remote locations, and maintaining healthy property values. It is essential to encourage OPALCO to stay the course and do whatever is needed, as efficiently as possible, to help solve a problem that is already having profound impact. Critical broadband decisions will be made at the OPALCO board meeting on Orcas Island at 8:30 a.m., July 18 at the OPALCO headquarters on Mt. Baker Road.
Consider voicing your opinion there, or send them a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– Gudgell is an Orcas Island realtor who has lived on the island for most of his life.