By Colleen Smith Armstrong, Islands' Sounder editor/publisher
For those who are willing to pay the connection fee, broadband is available in several core areas of San Juan County.
Orcas Power and Light Cooperative created a division in 2004 called “Island Network” that allowed individual broadband connections that were close to its fiber optic infrastructure. This includes most of Friday Harbor, Eastsound and Lopez Village and a few other areas close to fiber lines. Broadband is defined as high speed internet and other communication services.
As OPALCO investigated a county-wide broadband solution in early 2013, a moratorium was placed on new Island Network connections. The board lifted that freeze in February. As of today, there are 28 members hooked up to the co-op’s broadband.
“OPALCO may not be a broadband solution for everyone,” said Communication Specialist Suzanne Olson. “But we will give our members the option to connect to our infrastructure, where available.”
To see a map of existing and future fiber connections, visit www.opalco.com/island-network and click on “Service Locations.” The website also offers a request form for new hook-ups.
“We’ve put a lot of work into this site to answer questions for the community,” Olson said. “While all co-op members help pay for our grid control infrastructure, only those who connect to the Island Network pay for those costs.”
New connections include a one-time hook-up cost, which extends the network to the customer’s location from the closest backbone access point. This price will vary depending on the customer’s location. Once connected, the member pays for the service monthly.
OPALCO recently hired a new manager, John Graminski, to oversee the Island Network division.
A little Broadband history
In 1999, in order to improve electric system reliability, OPALCO started installing fiber optic lines connecting its offices to field devices and the mainland. Since then, it made high-speed data connections available to institutions like the public schools, libraries, medical facilities, government offices and certain small businesses.
In 2011, the San Juan County Economic Development Council and the San Juan Island Community Foundation asked OPALCO to explore how its fiber-optic network might be used to bring broadband services to most of San Juan County. The result was a proposed $34 million dollar project to build a hybrid fiber-wireless infrastructure that would serve at least 90 percent of the county. That initiative was shelved in the summer of 2013.
“As we continued our feasibility study, the board determined the financial risk was too great,” Olson said. “It was not because we didn’t get enough members signed up.”
Although the scope was scaled back, OPALCO is still expanding its fiber-optic network to improve the safety of field crews and increase reliability of its electric operation. This expanded network can be used as a backbone for local connections – for those willing to pay the connection costs like trenching.
Olson says public interest in individual broadband connections grew considerably after a CenturyLink underwater cable was severed on Nov. 5 last year. Telephone, 911 and internet service was interrupted for nearly a week until a temporary fix was put in place with the aid of OPALCO. Just days after the incident, the OPALCO board of directors directed that the company speed up fiber deployment throughout the county.
The co-op is undergoing a cost of service study that will update the fee structure and menu of services. It should be completed by this June. With more members connecting, the cost of service will likely go down.
“The cost is currently being divided by those 28 members,” Olson said. “We are looking at what is a reasonable rate with planned expansion and new hook-ups. We want to give members a menu of options to choose from for what fits their needs … some people need it desperately now for their business to function. They don’t want to wait for the cost to potentially go down.”
Throughout the islands, neighborhoods are joining forces to share the cost of a broadband connection. Communities in Deer Harbor, Roche Harbor and Cape San Juan are looking at spreading the cost out amongst multiple homeowners.
Last August, the board asked OPALCO to look into purchasing a “licensed FCC spectrum.” This would allow antennas to send wireless broadband signals to many more locations at a fraction of the current broadband cost. The cost of that purchase is confidential and the negotiations are ongoing. An answer is expected some time this year.
“It’s bigger than just making a purchase,” Olson said. “It’s a long process with FCC licensing.”
To avoid outages like Century Link’s this past fall, OPALCO has microwave links throughout the county that creates a loop to prevent service interruption. Redudancy in power supplies means there is a back-up if something fails.
“You need a plan b,” Olson said. “After the big outage, everyone became very familiar with the term redundancy.”