Reaction varies to upgrades to off-grid homes

THREE RIVERS — A proposed high-speed Internet service for the cluster of homes and small businesses near Lake Billy Chinook is drawing mixed reviews from residents of a gated community that lives off the grid and draws its energy from solar and wind power.

Pine Telephone Service, based in Halfway, says it would increase speed and service quality plus help with credit card purchases and 911 service.

Pine Telephone says it can start work on the federally finanaced $10 million project within 90 days.

But some in the area already have cell phone and wireless Internet service and say they worry about changes to an area that takes pride in unplugging from the grid.

"The biggest concern is going to be the idea of change," said Dave Collar, president of the Three Rivers Land Owners Association. "We bought here based on the idea of solar, on the idea of green."

Residents of the 4,000-acre Three Rivers subdivision, which has about 100 year-round residents and as many as 5,000 in the summer, say drop-deal lake views and a remote ambience have brought both million-dollar residences and mobile homes.

Some lots are used just for camping, the Bulletin newspaper of Bend said.

"We've got everything you've got in Bend, we just never tell anybody about it," said Kent Crook, who owns Concept Welding, a home-based custom fabrication, design and repair shop with views of Mount Jefferson and other peaks.

"If they bundled the phone line with Internet and television, that might be a benefit. But, personally, I don't see how it will benefit."

But his wife, Meg Cummings, a real estate broker in nearby Madras, said the number of people living year-round could increase with the service.

"People that come up here to camp and fish really probably don't care about staying connected," Cummings said. "But it will be a real boon in that we can promote it so that you can live up here and do business.

"So many people are telecommuting. You can have wild turkeys walk past your office and gobble at you."

John Hemphill, vice president of Pine Telephone, said the company would hire two or three new employees plus local contactors. Pine has an annual gross revenue of about $3.5 million.

The landowners association would have to change language in the deed before Pine could bring the fiber-optic cable past the community's gates.

The project would be funded with federal loans, which Pine would repay.

Pine Telephone will have to explain the proposal's benefits carefully to Three Rivers landowners if it expects to gain approval, said Don Colfels, the community's fire chief and former president of the landowners association.

He has lived there since 2001 and says he supports the proposal.

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