TRINITY — Joe Wheeler Electric Membership Corp. officials said they’ll begin preparations next week for providing a fiber-optic high-speed internet network after its membership overwhelming voted for the service in results announced Friday.
Of the 7,210 JWEMC members who cast ballots in the monthlong vote, 6,750 voted yes and 460 voted against the plan. Twenty-one percent of the members cast votes, the largest percentage of member participation in the utility’s 82-year history, board members said.
The utility said it plans to offer unlimited, 200-megabyte-per-second download and upload speeds for between $40 and $60 monthly per household. Company officials are saying it’ll likely take 12 months before the first group of customers has internet service available. A five-year timeline will cover the entire utility area, they say.
“This vote today can be as transformational and life-changing as getting electricity was out in the county in the 1930s and 1940s,” said JWEMC General Manager George Kitchens. “At our public hearings, I was hearing the need for this service. I thought the (yes) vote would be north of 90%. I’m loving it that it came in at 94%. It’s nice to see that level of support. Now we can’t let them down.”
JWEMC serves much of Lawrence County and parts of Morgan.
Kitchens said it will take a few weeks to get a quote on the engineering and project planning and will take 60 to 90 days to get the work done.
“After that, we have to do bids for construction and materials,” he said. “It will be late next summer when we begin construction.”
Scott Pell, chief technology officer with NRTC broadband solutions, said his company will lead the design, engineering and construction of the network.
“We’ll bring some teams in to look at the physical obstacles,” Pell said. “We’ll travel along the power lines. Some poles will need to be prepared for the attachment of the fiber. We’ll look at river crossings, rail crossings. Some poles will need to be replaced.”
He said it is important the groups work efficiently and don’t get in too big of a hurry.
“We need to make all the right decisions,” he said. “Our objective is to spend money once and wisely. We have an aggressive timeline. We need to make sure we spend money in an efficient manner and moving at a pace everyone here can keep up. Make sure we do it right the first time. We’re going to have a quality network, and once we get rolling we ought to be able to do it quickly.”
Kitchens and Pell said keeping a budget of about $100 million for the project is feasible.
“We’ll need about 10,000 subscribers to break even,” Kitchens said. “Our feasibility study suggests we’ll do better than that. If we don’t, we’re building this in annual budget phases. We can review where we need to as we go along.”
He wouldn’t predict what portions of the membership might be the earliest to receive the high-speed internet.
“We’re planning to connect 18 of our electric substations to the fiber grid in the first 12 months of construction,” Kitchens said. “If you happen to live along a road that has the big power lines that come out of the substations, there’s a possibility of a chance you’ll get service sooner than some other people.”
He said gigabyte per second speed will be available for some businesses and folks who work out of their homes.
“You’ve heard of Chattanooga, Huntsville being advertised as gig cities,” Kitchens said. “We’ll be gig counties. It’s going to be much better for attracting economic development. Maybe we can stay on the list of areas competing for businesses looking to locate.”
JWEMC spokesman Mike Cornelison said rural communities like Lacey’s Spring could see a boost in economic development.
“The Priceville corridor and Lacey’s Spring with its close proximity to Huntsville will now have a better chance to start to develop once high-speed internet arrives there,” he said. “It’s an exciting time for our members and all of North Alabama.”
Cornelison said JWEMC also plans to use a portion of the network for communications and other electric co-op purposes.
Wren resident Alice Green was the last of 37 customers to vote just before 3 p.m. Friday at the Trinity headquarters.
“I made sure to vote for the internet project because it puts us on a level playing field with large cities like Hoover, Huntsville, Decatur,” said Green, who moved to Wren in southern Lawrence County from Huntsville. “High-speed internet is vital for our children to compete in school and in life.”