The Story of High Speed Internet in San Juan County

Rural communities left behind

Bandwidth requirements continue to increase as modern technology advances and services move to the cloud. Currently, the average broadband speed nationwide is nearly 20 Mbps and rising while San Juan County speeds are less than half of that. Rural communities across the U.S. are struggling with inadequate telecommunication services.

Rural areas like ours urgently need major upgrades to their communications infrastructure, but such large investments are opposed to the business imperatives of major telecommunications corporations whose business models require that they minimize large expenses and maximize shareholder value. The result is a growing trend toward communities taking charge of their own Internet infrastructure needs.

An aging, maxed-out DSL infrastructure

Here in San Juan County, the aging DSL infrastructure is at capacity. There are a total of nine exhausted areas in the county where no additional connections are available, leaving those who need a connection with few options. To compound matters, many homes and businesses are on over-subscribed connections, receiving far less bandwidth than the top speed that they are paying for.

The 10-day CenturyLink fiasco

In November 2013, the catastrophic failure of a CenturyLink submarine cable served as a major wake-up call to our community. Approximately 16,000 people in the San Juan Islands were impacted by a 10-day service outage that took down 911 emergency response lines, landlines, Internet and cell service, putting lives at risk, crippling local businesses, and prompting the San Juan County Council to declare a state of emergency.

In spite of this fiasco, at the San Juan County hearing, a local CenturyLink representative testified that CenturyLink had no plans to improve its infrastructure in San Juan County.

OPALCO and the fiber solution


Fiber Optics: faster, better, stronger

Fiber-optic broadband has been the platinum standard for the telecommunications industry world wide for decades. The light that fiber-optic cables use is superior in nearly every way to the electric signals that copper wires use. Fiber-optic broadband delivers greater speed for longer distances. Data moves through fiber-optic cables at the speed of light and does not suffer from the resistance issues that electricity runs into as it passes through copper wires. The result is faster speed over longer distances with greater capacity. In the end, data transfers through fiber optics can reach incredible speeds, with recent development achieving terabits and petabits per second.

OPALCO’s fiber backbone

OPALCO has been installing a fiber-optic backbone throughout San Juan County to serve as the new and improved management and control system for the power grid since 2001. In fact, OPALCO has been providing Internet services since 2004 to public safety agencies, county offices, schools, and libraries. They are also deploying technology to enhance county-wide emergency communications infrastructure for use by our Emergency Responders.

Funding Fiber Fairly


Weighing the options

OPALCO has explored various options for deploying fiber-optic broadband county-wide in a fair and economically viable way. First, OPALCO approached CenturyLink about partnering on a solution, but CenturyLink refused to make the investment. OPALCO then undertook a costing effort to assess the feasibility of funding and supplying broadband as a co-op. However, the OPALCO membership rejected the project as too costly.

Following the CenturyLink cable failure, OPALCO accelerated its efforts to find a fair solution and settled on a shared cost model that is working all across the county today.

How the cost model works

With the current cost model, OPALCO will continue to fund the backbone while organized fiber groups and individual homeowners fund the construction of fiber optic infrastructure in their communities. Furthermore, to help encourage cooperation and cost sharing between groups of neighbors, the OPALCO board approved a first-come, first-served incentive program in the form of a construction credit to each property owner.

This model positions community members who want broadband to achieve it through organized fiber groups for a reasonable investment.

OPALCO purchases Rock Island Communications

A trusted, local support team

To quickly establish a local support infrastructure for its expanding base of broadband customers, OPALCO purchased Rock Island Communications. As a wholly owned subsidiary of OPALCO, Rock Island is a trusted local ISP helping San Juan County homes and businesses to connect to the fiber-optic backbone and enjoy modern, scalable, and reliable broadband services for generations to come.

The mission of Rock Island is to provide San Juan County with the highest level of broadband service at the most cost effective price. Rock Island is a community-centric organization that goes above and beyond to serve San Juan County’s broadband needs in every way possible. Rock Island is dedicated to delivering solutions that meet the varied needs of our community.

Competitive service offerings

Rock Island provides fiber Internet rate plans ranging from 30 Mbps to 1,000 Mbps for both upload and download. For seasonal residents, Rock Island offers special rate plans. Voice over IP (VoIP) telephone service using your existing local number can also be added to your package for a $15 monthly cost. For rate plan details, please visit our website.

Your Fiber-Optic Investment

The investment you make in fiber-optic broadband depends upon many factors, such as total distance, terrain, and the number of people willing to share the cost. On average, the per-customer cost of middle and last mile ranges from $1,500 to $6,000.

However, the money you invest in fiber-optic broadband will yield high returns in terms of speed, reliability, and even increased property value. The Fiber to the Home Council Americas estimates an increase of 3.1% to your property value when bringing a gigabit fiber service to your home (

Put simply: collaborating with your neighbors to share middle mile expenses, is the single best way to maximize your investment and reduce per-home costs.

Get $1,500 Toward Your Build

To incentivize cost sharing for middle and last mile construction within your community, Rock Island is offering a last mile incentive program available to each property owner. Our incentive structure is specifically designed to encourage communities and groups to work together with us to find the best, most cost-effective solution for your area. Our Construction Incentive pays up to $1,500 on Rock Island equipment and Rock Island labor. This credit toward your last mile build cost.

Islanders Bank Lending Program

In coordination with Rock Island, Islanders Bank has created a special lending program for both individuals and groups who wish to invest in this critical infrastructure. This loan program is a convenient, low-interest, and straightforward option available to homeowner associations financing larger group efforts and to qualifying individual homeowners working with Rock Island to construct and deploy service. Contact Islanders Bank to learn more.

Get started today


Organize or get involved with your fiber group

The Rock Island team is actively working with organized fiber groups across San Juan County to expand our fiber-optic infrastructure. The more people who get involved and share infrastructure costs, the lower the per-property investment. If you are already part of an organized fiber group, find out how you can get involved by contacting your group’s leader.

If you are a member of a organized water, road, homeowners, or other neighborhood-based association, approach your group’s leadership about putting together a plan to connect to fiber. No association? No problem. Simply poll your neighbors to see if you can establish a fiber group.