FALKVILLE — Residents in rural Morgan and Lawrence counties could start receiving high-speed fiber optic internet service for $40 to $60 a month beginning in the fall of 2020 if Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp. members vote for the program.

At its first of six public meetings Thursday night in Falkville, JWEMC leaders said the internet service won't affect electric rates, and it is not mandatory that members subscribe to the internet service. They said it may take up to five years to provide complete coverage to their 43,000 customers.

JWEMC General Manager George Kitchens said the fiber optic lines will deliver 200 megabyte per second download and upload speeds to JWEMC residential customers.

Small businesses will receive 500,000 megabytes per second, and larger industries will have access to a gigabyte per second, he said.

Tim McKelvey of Hartselle and Michael Moore of Massey were two interested Joe Wheeler members attending and liked the information Kitchens shared.

McKelvey said he uses the hot spot on his cellphone for Wi-Fi service. He said he has had dial-up service in the past. “We had a service for two years that gave us 1½ megabytes per second,” he said. “This one will be 200 megabytes."

Moore said he likes the reliability of fiber optic lines. “I’m on board with it. I wish they’d roll it out faster,” he said. Moore said he uses a fixed wireless network at home that is $90 a month for 50 megabyte speed download and 10 megabytes per second upload.

Kitchens said before infrastructure can be built out, the membership will need a majority 51% “yes” vote on the issue Nov. 1. He said the co-op needs to receive about 1,200 ballots to have a quorum.

He said the ballots and more detailed information about the internet program will be mailed to the 43,000 customers in early October.

Kitchens said subscribers won’t face rapid price increases or slower speeds to force an upgrade. He he doesn’t anticipate any installation charges for the first five years either.

“This will be life changing for our communities,” he told the 80 or so people attending the Falkville presentation. “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 if the yes vote passes, that in the first quarter of 2020, a design and engineering process will begin.

“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 1, 3,800 customers in Year 2 and between 3,000 and 5,000 annually Years 3 through 5.” He said with strong membership support, the internet coverage could be completed in as little as three years.

He said the projected build-out cost is between $95 million and $110 million and the co-op will secure a loan from CoBank, headquartered in Colorado.

CoBank is part of the national Farm Credit System that provides loans and financial services to cooperatives, agribusinesses, rural public utilities and other farm credit associations.

“I’ve sent them a feasibility study, and we will be applying for grants from Montgomery and Washington, D.C.,” Kitchens added. “If we can get grants, that makes it better. Free money is always good.”

He said JWEMC needs nearly 10,000 customers to sign up for the service to make it profitable.

Joe Wheeler serves portions of Morgan and Lawrence counties. Kitchens said it is too early to determine what areas might receive internet service first.

Madison’s Scott Pell, chief technology officer for National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative, is assisting JWEMC on this project. He said he feels comfortable the membership will vote to approve the network. “The internet is now more of a utility,” he said. “If everyone (with Joe Wheeler) uses it, it will be wildly successful. Folks have been moving out (of the area) because of the lack of access to the internet. People who have kids will be the primary adopters (of this program). … We want to deliver 200 megabytes to everybody all of the time.”

He said co-ops in other parts of the country had 95% voting yes for similar internet programs. He said a cooperative in the Dallas area needed 3,500 voters for a quorum and more than 20,000 cast “yes” ballots.

State Rep. Proncey Robertson, R-Mount Hope, called the JWEMC internet plans "a great thing for our communities."

"I don't know how anybody could complain about what Joe Wheeler is offering," he said. "It can catapult the area in a lot of different ways. I'm glad to see Joe Wheeler making this investment."

Obtaining reliable high-speed internet service has been a challenge in rural areas nationwide. Residents of rural Lawrence and Morgan counties have said that lack of high-speed internet is not only an inconvenience, it puts their areas at an economic and educational disadvantage. 

Morgan County District 3 Commissioner Don Stisher said he was "super excited" to hear Kitchens' details.

"I applaud Joe Wheeler for their efforts and due diligence in putting together a fiber optic plan for the communities," he said. "And it won't affect the electrical rates customers pay."

Kitchens added Voice over Internet Protocol phone service also will be offered, and cellphone service is a possibility in the future.

“We’re not planning to be a cable TV company,” he said. “We will help our customers learn how to stream programs.”

He said member subscribers can buy internet routers or buy or lease one from Joe Wheeler.

When Kitchens asked for a show of hands from the Falkville crowd in support of the internet service, nearly everyone supported the details.

JWEMC has five more educational meetings planned. On Monday, Kitchens will give a presentation at Priceville Junior High at 6 p.m. and on Tuesday, he will be at the Lawrence County High auditorium at 6 p.m. Similar meetings will be at Brewer High on Sept. 16, East Lawrence High on Sept. 19 and Hatton High on Sept. 26.

mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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