The FCC made rulings upholding net neutrality, open Internet and expansion rights for municipal Internet providers Feb. 26. These rulings may allow Opelika Power Services and its 425-mile long fiber optic network to expand into Auburn and other parts of Lee County.
The FCC made the ruling to classify the Internet as a public utility and to keep the Internet regulated, ensuring that broadband companies could not out-bid smaller companies to prioritize their connection speeds.
“What we would like to do at some point is to expand,” said Gary Fuller, mayor of Opelika. “We have had a number of folks right on the (city) line and we can’t serve them.”
Fuller said he hopes one day soon, the services provided by Opelika Power Services could also benefit Auburn and other local areas and cited two other U.S. cities in similar situations.
“Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson County, North Carolina, petitioned the FCC to remove state restrictions on their service territory,” Fuller said. “How that relates to Opelika is that we are restricted by state law that we can only serve the corporate limits of Opelika.”
The reason for the petitions from Chattanooga and Wilson County was because like Opelika, city limits restricted the areas the cities could serve, as opposed to their local broadband providers, showing the citizens of Opelika could one day soon propose a petition of their own.
“I’ve been mayor for 10 years [since] last October,” Fuller said. “In my first three or four years, the most complaints I got about anything was Charter. Sorry customer service, outages all the time, pricing was going up and there was no competition.”
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Fuller’s comments fall in line with many of the points made by FCC chairman Tom Wheeler before the FCC’s Feb. 26 ruling.
“Broadband access providers have the technical ability and the economic incentive to impose restrictions on Internet,” Wheeler said.
Opelika had an advantage other cities in Alabama did not. It owns its own power company, Opelika Power Services, or OPS.
Opelika was able to use OPS to build a municipal fiber optic network to compete with the main Internet service provider, Charter Communications, to provide all of their citizens with faster connection speeds than Charter could offer.
Fuller said Opelika decided to build its own network after receiving complaints about Charter’s service and pricing.
OPS has been offering more options for customers, including rolling out a business service in November 2014.
“We could offer a residential home, telephone-wise, two lines,” Fuller said. “We were limited. Now, if you need 50 phone lines, we can give you 50 phone lines. If you need 300, we can give you 300.”
The success of OPS is also playing a role in attracting many new business and job opportunities to the area, according to Fuller.
Baxter International, a health care company that manufactures products to treat kidney disease and many other medical conditions, is soon to expand their current Opelika location, according to Fuller.
“What a compliment it is for Opelika, for our workforce and for this area, for Baxter to invest another $300 million in our community and hire 200 more folks,” Fuller said.
Fuller said with more jobs planned to come to the city, the benefits of the 425-mile fiber optic network seem to being benefitting Opelika in more than just clear phone and Internet service.
“We want to think about what this is going to mean for Opelika 10 or 20 years from now for our children and our grandchildren,” Fuller said. “It used to be the railroads, then the interstate highway system. Well, now we think this is the highway, the Internet highway. Education, healthcare, it all goes through it, connectivity is key.”
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