Rock Island Communications Talks Broadband

by Leslie Kelly

Sounder contributor

Living on an island has its advantages. But sometimes there are disadvantages. And internet connection and speed are among them.

Rock Island Communications, a division of OPALCO, Orcas Power & Light Cooperative, has plans to deal with that.

Rock Island Communications is bringing fiber optic internet to the islands and that will allow businesses and residents to have high speed internet, according to Dan Burke, spokesman for Rock Island Communications.

“People who don’t live on an island don’t understand what it’s like to not have high speed internet available when you need it or want it,” Burke said. “So the county and OPALCO and Rock Island Communications have made this a priority for island residents and business owners.”

It’s a real task to bring internet to rural areas, and in cases like the islands, where the population isn’t large, companies like Comcast find that it’s not worth the investment, he said. Thus, OPALCO committed to making it happen and set aside $4.5 million to help fund the project.

Currently, Rock Island is working with businesses in the Eastsound area of Orcas Island, hoping to get enough of them interested so that the fiber optic network can be laid.

As Burke explained, fiber optic is the platinum standard of telecommunications service. Fiber optic allows communication to move at the speed of light. Fiber optic refers to tiny strains of glass fiber that are bundled together in cables. These fibers transmit light pulses which allow communication data to be transmitted and read.

In the project Rock Island is offering, the internet connection speed is 100 times faster than the basic DSL offered in the county today, Burke said. The cables will be buried 18 inches deep and every home or business that signs on will get a dedicated strain.

In order to make the system affordable to the 12,000 residents of the San Juan Islands, Rock Island is suggesting that neighbors ban together and share in the costs. Burke said typical construction costs are from $1,500 to $6,000 depending on the density, topography and distance to the “backbone” which is the main source of the fiber optic network.

In most case, he said there will be a middle and a last mile that will need to be placed. The middle mile brings the service from the backbone to the street. The last mile brings the service from the street to individual businesses or homes.

“In most cases, the cost of that is about $2,500 for each step,” Burke said. “Or about $5,000 to get connected.”

But he said that pays off in that property values are expected to increase about 3.1 percent with the high speed internet connection. So for the typical island home valved at $425,000, the increase in value is $12,000 to $13,000 or double what the investment is.

And to help with the cost, Rock Island has an incentive of $1,500 per home investment toward the overall building cost. This can be applied to either the middle mile or the last mile costs. The company suggests getting the neighborhood to come together and commit to the middle mile and then applying the $1,500 to each individual home that is participating for the last mile connection. Participants can also decide to get a $20 a month discount to their services, rather than a lump sum.

But, Burke said, this is only available if each property owner signs on now, not at a later date. He also said Islanders Bank has created a loan program to help local residents afford the start up costs.

Burke stressed how important it is for business owners to be a part of the program.

“What’s happening right now is that we’re working in the Eastsound area and we need at least 30 businesses to say ‘Yes,’” he said. “Once that happens, the project can get underway and service would be available within the year.”

Mary Clure, president of the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has endorsed the project.

“This is such an opportunity,” Clure said. “It’s being subsidized to keep the cost down and it’s so important for businesses to get connected.”

If the project is successful in Eastsound, then the business district of Friday Harbor will be next, followed by Lopez Island.

Burke said he’s available to answer questions at 360-375-7050.

“It’s easy for people to say that we’ve chosen to live on an island and just have to deal with slow internet,” he said. “But we have many important businesses and even home businesses that operate here. We contribute to the economy and we need to have the best possible service we can.”

And, he added, with high speed internet emergency communications in the event of a disaster or accidents will improve greatly.

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