A draft of possibilities | OPALCO Guest column

By Foster Hildreth

OPALCO’ s assistant general manager

We want to thank everyone who attended the five community forums we recently held in partnership with the San Juan County Economic Development Council on Orcas, Shaw, Lopez, and San Juan Island to discuss the countywide broadband initiative. As we said at the forums, this broadband initiative is still a work in progress and no final decisions have been made but, we were excited to share with you a draft of a possible system design and we’re grateful for the comments and suggestions we heard.

At these forums, we started out by reviewing the needs for improved communication technology in our community and the four goals of the Broadband Initiative:

– Expand OPALCO’s existing data network to allow “Smart Grid” technologies that will enhance reliability of our electrical system and help our members conserve energy.

– Help our local emergency services improve their communications systems by eliminating “dead zones” in their radio coverage.

– Make high-speed Internet access available to at least 90 percent of the county. The Economic Development Council pointed out that this is critical to supporting local businesses, including home-based businesses, and also for providing access to health care and education in today’s globally connected world.

– Provide opportunities for cell phone companies to expand their services here in a way that minimizes impact on our beautiful island environment.

We reviewed the system design that we’re considering which involves connecting OPALCO’s existing fiber optic backbone to approximately 100 utility poles throughout the islands. High speed internet (broadband) service would be delivered wirelessly from these poles to local homes and businesses. Our plan would also allow for the connection of emergency services radio facilities where additional coverage is needed. And, we could provide space and connections on these poles for cell phone companies who choose to take advantage of this opportunity to increase their coverage.

These poles and their associated antennas would be visible, so we discussed how OPALCO would plan and build this system in ways that minimize impact on our island aesthetics and environment, just as OPALCO has built and operated our electrical system for 75 years. We are striving to design a system that would truly be an investment in our future: one that would serve our needs today, and could also evolve in the decades to come to meet our needs in a rapidly changing world.

We explained that the proposed system would cost an estimated $16 – $18 million dollars to build, and this cost would be funded through low-interest loans available through the Federal Government. We are considering a financial arrangement in which these loans would be repaid by all OPALCO members through a monthly charge estimated at $5 to $10 per month, and the operational costs of the system would be covered by a monthly internet service subscription fee similar to what we pay today.

The input we received at the forums reflects the diversity of opinions in the islands. On Orcas and Shaw Islands, we heard tremendous support for the initiative, as demonstrated through a show of hands. On Shaw, we were asked to consider the needs of members who struggle to make ends meet and discussed the possibility of a voluntary donation program, like PAL, to help those who would be most impacted by the additional fee. On Lopez, we heard from supporters of the initiative, and also from people who expressed concern about potential health effects of wireless technology. On San Juan Island, several people voiced support for the project, and we also heard from some local Internet Service Providers who were concerned about how this project might impact their jobs. At several of the forums, we heard from members of our emergency services team, including Sheriff Nou, who made it clear that lives are at risk – and some have already been lost – due to the many dead zones where cell phone or radio communication is nonexistent.

We are listening to your feedback carefully, and we want to encourage islanders who have thoughts or input to get in touch with us. We are continually working to understand and address the concerns of our fellow islanders as we proceed to investigate the technical and financial viability of this project.

OPALCO is committed to operating transparently, doing what we can to accommodate the interests of our membership, and making sure that we act prudently. Ultimately, the decision on whether to move forward will depend on whether the OPALCO Board of Directors believes the initiative is in the long-term interests of the OPALCO membership.

Again, thank you to everyone who participated in the forums this week, and if you didn’t participate, we encourage you to visit our website – opalco.com – to keep informed and give us your feedback.