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City of Bainbridge Island talks about potential role as Internet service provider

Bainbridge Island may have a new on-ramp to the information superhighway.

City officials will soon consider providing islanders access to the Internet, making the city a potential new provider on the island.

Bainbridge Island has an opportunity to tap into Internet service for its residents — and to add a new utility under its purview — through fiber optic cable.

"I believe (fiber optic Internet) is something the city council should look at in the next year," said Councilman Steve Bonkowski.

Currently, Internet access is sold to customers by private, for-profit providers. Those providers sell access along technology such as cable lines, or even over telephone lines. Fiber optic cable — known for the high speed it can transmit massive amounts of information — will provide a new pathway for islanders to access the World Wide Web.

Another bonus about fiber optic cable: It's already here.

The Kitsap Public Utility District has already installed what are known as "trunk lines" of fiber optic cable down main island arteries, including along Highway 305. These trunk lines are what city hall, the Bainbridge Island School District and the city's police department use to access the Internet.

The trunk lines can also branch off to offer greater service to island neighborhoods.

By law, however, KPUD can only provide the lines and sell access to the lines to retailers at wholesale cost.

In other words, KPUD can build the road to travel on, but they can't sell the taxi service to travel on it.

A third party is needed between KPUD and customers to act as a retailer, and that's where the city of Bainbridge Island may step in.

The city council discussed the possibility of adding a new utility to provide residents access to the Internet at a recent council meeting.

The possibility raised a few eyebrows across the dais.

"We could potentially become a retail provider and this could be a revenue for that particular utility," Mayor Debbi Lester said at the meeting.

The options for future fiber optic Internet on the island are diverse. Neighborhoods could install fiber optic lines to homes and connect those cables to the trunk lines; forming thier own utility. Or the city could invest in new lines of its own and then sell access.

Bonkowski said he views the Internet as a significant factor in economic development for the island and fiber optics is worth exploring.

"Having Internet in the core area downtown, or Copper Top and so on, would facilitate more businesses viewing Bainbridge as a place to do work," Bonkowski said.

"These days you need to have that kind of capability to work with the rest of the world … it's kind of the wave of the future and we need take a hard look at it," he said.

Bonkowski would like the council to begin talks on the topic at its annual retreat in January.

Ever since joining the council earlier this year, Bonkowski has promoted expanding telecommunications on the island, such as cell service.

The city's attorney, Will Patton, was asked to brief the council on the topic at its Nov. 14 meeting. Other Washington cities, such as Edmonds, have invested in fiber optic cable for local Internet access.

In short, Patton told the council that the city legally has the ability to offer telecommunications services as a utility.

"The city of Bainbridge Island could provide the retail service and contract through KPUD to provide the connections," Patton said.

Patton added that for such an endeavor, the city would have to invest money up front, with the idea that the service could end up paying for itself. Such an investment could also be bonded.

Bonkowski said that such an investment is in line with city efforts to invest in economic development.

"This would be the city paying for infrastructure that supports economic growth," Bonkowski said. "And that is the point of fiber optic and cell phone (service) — it would support that infrastructure to allow better development on our island."

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