OPALCO at the crossroads | Guest Column

By Gray Cope

Perhaps no institution has done more than Orcas Power and Light Cooperative to significantly improve the lives of the people of San Juan County. For 75 years OPALCO has been a beneficent monopoly. OPALCO boards have made many good decisions. It has many great employees and the quality of service is excellent.

OPALCO now stands at a crossroads and it wants to spend an estimated $18 million to build the towers and infrastructure to support cellular service, wireless broadband Internet, reduce dead zones in emergency communications, and make Smart Grid improvements. Only the latter truly fits within the stated mission of OPALCO to provide “safe, reliable, cost effective and environmentally sensitive electric utility services.”

How much will it cost you?

OPALCO has stated you might see a $10 per month increase in your monthly charge; $18 million divided by 14,500 meters in the county gives $1,241 billed to every meter suggesting a 10 year payback period. This can be reduced if the operating income can decrease the debt.This wireless broadband expansion will more than double our total debt and massively increase OPALCO’s utility plant by 36 percent (based on 2011 annual report) and will increase maintenance costs.

What should we do?

I’ve set up a discussion forum online and my hope is to continue a civil and thoughtful exploration of this question. Due to word length restrictions I will touch on some here.

1) It is unfair for OPALCO to pass its wireless broadband expansion onto struggling lower income families and those who cannot get or do not want this non-essential and optional wireless system. It needs to have an opt out or be covered by the rate structure. The decision to proceed should be based on a vote of the entire well-informed membership, not just seven board members.

2) Now that towers will soon be allowed (possibly by June 26) let the cellular companies pay for them.

3) OPALCO should allow emergency repeater whip antennae to be installed on our existing poles. The county should pay for this.

4) OPALCO needs to do a more careful analysis of the local broadband and ISP market. If they have a business plan, they need to share it with us so we understand what we are buying into before deciding to proceed.

5) OPALCO needs to actually consult all the existing ISPs and broadband providers to understand the actual size of our market and to decide if they really want to compete against them all, or become a broadband backbone supplier and incentivise other companies to improve their broadband delivery to us. OPALCO could end up building an under utilized wireless broadband network and cause job losses at local ISPs.

6) OPALCO may need to make a management paradigm shift from monopolist to competitor in order to be successful in this county’s broadband market.  Once it is determined how much OPALCO’s wireless broadband will cost per month, it may prove less desirable to many and the market potential may be a small fraction of what they think it will be.

7) Realize that broadband Internet does not equate in a simple way to the unemployed finding work here. The math is more complex. Broadband Internet widens the competitive market to induce islanders to buy off island and those high-tech workers who can benefit from broadband are not the ones suffering the worst of the unemployment. The Economic Development Council and San Juan Island Community Foundation should consider incubating island companies committed to building Internet based businesses who will utilize the local unemployed and use business models that do not export jobs out of county.

I am a technology advocate and believe broadband Internet is crucial to our county, but OPALCO’s plan may be hugely flawed. I am also saddened wireless towers will soon be marring our beautiful islands. Please join the discussion online at http://opalcowireless.boards.net.

— Gray Cope is a 40-year resident of San Juan Island; has no cell phone service from home, but does have broadband Internet through which he has developed software for companies on the mainland, and he has hired others.