High-speed fiber optic internet could be coming to parts of rural Lawrence and Morgan counties in about a year, pending a vote from Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Cooperative members.
JWEMC General Manager George Kitchens announced detailed plans for the internet project at the Co-op’s third of six public meetings at Lawrence County High School Tuesday night.
He said it is too early to determine what areas might receive internet service first, but the membership will begin the design and engineering process during the first quarter of 2020 if voters approve the plan.
Though it could take up to five years to make the service available to all 43,000 members, some customers could start receiving the service beginning in the fall of 2020.
The service will not affect electric rates, and it is not mandatory for members who vote yes to subscribe to the service, according to JWEMC authorities.
A majority 51 percent approval among members is needed by Nov. 1 for the plan to move forward, and the co-op will need to receive about 1,200 ballots to form a quorum, according to Kitchens.
He said all JWEMC members will receive ballots and more details about the program by mail in early October.
“Even if it’s something that you don’t think you would use, a ‘yes’ vote means that it would be available to your neighbors, and it’s not going to cost you anything,” JWEMC Communications Director Michael Cornelison said.
Members who subscribe to the service, if it is approved, can expect to pay an estimate of $40 to $60 a month for the smallest internet package, which will deliver consistent speeds of 200 megabytes per second, according to the co-op.
“That’s about as close as we’re willing to get (prices) down to right now. We want to let people know that we are going to be competitive,” Cornelison said. “Until the vote goes through and we start signing contracts, we can’t get it down to an exact price.”
Larger package options will likely include a small business package that will deliver 500 megabytes per second, and a step up from that will offer speeds of up to one gigabyte per second, he said.
He said the service will offer speeds at least two times faster than what competitors are currently offering to Lawrence and Morgan residents in areas of internet service.
Subscribers may be relieved to know they won’t face any rapid price increases or forced upgrades, Kitchens said.
He and Cornelison said JWEMC has decided not to charge installation fees during the first five years or the initial installation process.
“This will be life changing for our communities,” Kitchens said. “There’ll be no data cap, no limits, no throttling of speeds. We won’t play games with the pricing. You won’t be paying more a few months after you receive service. We want to make enough money to pay the loans down, but we don’t want to price gouge.”
He said the Co-op plans to secure a loan from CoBank in Colorado to pay for the internet installation, which is projected to cost $95 to $110 million.
CoBank is a member of the national Farm Credit System and provides loans and other financial services to agribusinesses, rural public utilities and other farm credit associations.
Kitchens said JWEMC will also apply for state and federal grants to help cut costs, which will also benefit its members.
“We have studied this internally for over a year,” he said. “We hope to have 18 substations and 1,000 customers hooked up in Year One, 3,800 customers in Year Two and between 3,000 and 5,000 annually Years Three through Five.”
JWEMC needs about 10,000 customers to sign up for the service to be profitable, he added.
He told attendants to Tuesday night’s meeting that strong membership support could mean the service is completed in about three years.
“If we get a large response, it could speed things up,” added Cornelison. “Of course, we’re limited by construction speed, but the more interest we get, we hope to get more people signed up quicker. That will get it out to everybody even faster.”
Rural areas have experienced challenges in obtaining reliable high-speed internet service nationwide.
Lawrence County officials have said their communities are at an economic and educational disadvantage for the lack of reliable internet service in their areas.
State Representative Proncey Robertson said the internet project will enhance quality of life and industry in Lawrence County.
“To enhance our infrastructure, a next big step—probably one of the biggest steps—is this internet, because every company we recruit has got to have high-speed internet, number one. After that, the education of our children, and just us functioning in this world that we live in is about us having that infrastructure,” he said. “We are blessed to have Joe Wheeler EMC make this investment and actually step out and do something that will put us ahead of other rural locations in Alabama.”
JWEMC will hold two more presentations in Lawrence County this month. Similar meetings are also taking place in Morgan County. Meetings have been held in Falkville and at Priceville Junior High School, and a meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at Brewer High School on Monday, Sept. 16.
On Thursday, Sept. 19, Kitchens will host a public meeting at East Lawrence High School at 6 p.m., and on Sept. 26, he will present the information again at Hatton High School.
JWEMC is also posting live feeds of their public meetings on their Facebook page as each session occurs.