By John Mullen
Orange Beach and CenturyLink are partnering in an effort to bring fiber optic to residents in the coastal resort town.
In a specially called meeting on Monday, the City Council voted 6-0 to put up $1 million in an effort aimed at spurring the development of a system to bring in the high-speed internet network.
“It’s not putting $1 million into the project, it’s just a good-faith initiative to say the city is with them for the entire project,” Councilman Jerry Johnson said. “We’ll help with contacting the neighborhoods, we’ll answer questions for the residents and we’ll provide meeting places.
“We have been searching for about two years to find someone who would bring fiber to the residences, to the neighborhoods,” Johnson said.
For the effort to work, Johnson said, enough citizens have to put up a $25 deposit each. Johnson is the chairman of the city’s Telecommunications and Technology Committee.
Two signup quotas must be met before the project can proceed, Johnson said — at a bare minimum, 1,000 need to sign up. Additionally, CenturyLink has divided the city into seven zones and at least 33 percent of residents in at least zone must sign on.
Smaller cities such as Orange Beach aren’t usually an attractive draw for fiber optic companies, Johnson said.
“The issue with Orange Beach is we’re only 6,000 full-time residents,” Johnson said. “There’s no company out there of any size that’s going to come into Orange Beach and invest $24 million for 6,000 accounts. And you’re not guaranteed to get 6,000. Probably in the neighborhood of 40 percent of that.
“Google told me ‘we don’t go below the size of Kansas City.’”
After months of talks with CenturyLink, the company decided it wanted to start an effort to bring fiber optics to smaller towns. Orange Beach is the first city in the new program.
“It took us about 18 months to get the board of CenturyLink to agree to do a project and for Orange Beach to say we were willing to do it,” Johnson said. “CenturyLink sees a market with small cities. They think there are thousands of small cities that want broadband and they are willing to set up a market specifically for small cities.”
CenturyLink will have four customer forums at the Orange Beach Community Center during September in an effort to sign up enough residents.
“If the thresholds are met, once we get the 1,000 and 33 percent in one of those groups, then they’ll turn the green light on,” Johnson said. “And at that point, the city will put in $1 million. It’ll be in a mutually agreed escrow account. It’s not going to CenturyLink’s bottom line.”
The city will eventually get the money back, Johnson said.
“The return to the city will be based on annual revenue from each customer who takes service,” he said. “If for some reason after 12 months we have not reached those thresholds, the city hasn’t put up anything, CenturyLink hasn’t put in anything and everybody who put up a deposit will get a full refund.”