By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter
OPELIKA— Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, has proposed several bills to expand allow a public municipal utility provider, Opelika Power Services, to expand its internet service outside of the municipal jurisdiction of the city of Opelika.
Whatley has proposed three different bills this legislative session, one would allow the utility provider, owned and backed by the city of Opelika, to expand its services outside of Opelika. One version would allow it to expand into four counties surrounding Lee County. Current Alabama law doesn’t allow municipal service providers to expand beyond their municipal jurisdiction.
A second version of that bill would require a State referendum.
A third version of the bill, which is most likely the most amicable version, would only allow it to expand into the rest of Lee County including the city of Auburn. Whatley said he is pushing this version of the bill hardest this year because it is “most likely to pass.”
In 2010, the people of Opelika voted in a referendum to o.k. a plan that would allow Opelika Power Services to take out a revenue bond of more than $40 million to establish their internet services, which included more than 425 miles of fiber infrastructure.
The bond is backed by the city of Opelika but is supported and paid for with revenue from Opelika Power Services. A large sum of the money was used to make Opelika the first “Gig City” in Alabama, which is a designation for internet services that offer gigabyte download speeds.
Since then, the city’s utility provider hasn’t broken even on the project, though Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller has said he expects the project to break even this year.
“If it is determined the existing municipal system is unable to pay for itself going forward, a situation eventually realized by all these municipal systems, then proposals to increase its coverage area should be met with skepticism,” said Richard Seals, an economics professor at Auburn University, in a letter to The Alabama Political Reporter.
Whatley said he wants Opelika Power Services to be able to expand to provide service to areas that are currently underserved by traditional private internet service providers, which include WOW!, Charter Spectrum and AT&T in Lee County. Those companies don’t provide service in many rural areas in Lee County.
Some families in northern and southern Auburn neighborhoods, OPS likely expansion territory, and throughout Lee County pay hundreds of dollars a month for cell phone data plans because high-speed broadband internet is not available in their area.
“I would love for private industry to serve Beauregard, North Auburn, South Auburn, but they have made an economic decision not to, and I have Opelika that is willing to,” Whatley said.
Whatley said the expansion was also important for business in Lee County.
“Twenty years ago people asked what your water looks like, what your sewer looks like, and how your schools were,” Whatley said. “Today they ask what your digital footprint is. What is your ability to move large sums of data at high rates of speed between my parent company and where I am here.”
The expansion is particularly important to provide high-speed services to first-tier support businesses in and right outside of Opelika on the Interstate-85 corridor that provide parts and support to the KIA automotive plant across the border in Georgia.
“Right now the answer is we can’t provide you with that high-speed service, because we don’t have it,” Whatley said. “This bill would hopefully change that.”
Several groups, including the Alabama Cable Telecommunications Association and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, have spoken out against Whatley’s plans and OPS’s service in general, saying that the project is government overreach. If the project goes under, they say, it would be on the backs of the taxpayers of Opelika.
Rep. Joe Lovvorn, R-Auburn, has also filed a bill in the Alabama House that would accomplish the same goal. Whatley’s bill will go before the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee April 5.