Broadband project well underway

Since Orcas Power and Light Cooperative launched its full-scale broadband project in San Juan County this winter, the work has been non-stop.

“We can’t keep up with the demand,” said Gerry Lawlor, executive vice president of Rock Island Communications, the new for-profit subsidiary of OPALCO. “We can’t get it out fast enough; we are a small team. We figured most early adaptors would want it cheap and easy by using a wireless adaptor, but most neighborhoods are opting for fiber installation.”

Since the co-op’s acquisition of Rock Island, Lawlor has been working 100-hour weeks. He spends a lot of time speaking to homeowners’ associations (there are 130 in the county) and property owners about the broadband process. There are currently 80 neighborhoods at various stages of the design process.

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 option network might be used to bring broadband services to most of San Juan County. The result was a proposed $34 million 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 after insufficient monetary support from members.

Although the scope was scaled back, OPALCO still worked on expanding the backbone of its fiber optic network to improve the safety of field crews and increase reliability of its electric operation.

In February 2015, OPALCO announced it had purchased Rock Island Communications, which merged its staff, infrastructure and operations with OPALCO to deliver broadband services for homes and businesses in San Juan County.

OPALCO General Manager Foster Hildreth is president of the for-profit company, and Lawlor is executive vice president. As the parent company, OPALCO is providing funding for the start-up costs and working capital for the new entity. The business plan projects a positive return on the total investment by 2020. For the next two years, $3 per month on co-op members’ bills will go toward costs associated with Rock Island. OPALCO’s total loan investment will be $7.5 million. For a map of broadband installation, go to

Current projects

Fiber for broadband can be installed in two ways: overhead or underground.

Michaels, a utility company based out of Wisconsin, has been installing all of the overhead fiber work for OPALCO and Rock Island.

“Michaels has the equipment and the manpower to do it,” Lawlor said.

Local contractors are completing the underground fiber installation with specialty machines called directional drills. The conduit for broadband is at the most two inches in diameter and as small as a 1/4-inch in diameter.

“OPALCO linemen have nothing to do with neighborhood fiber installation, but they do work on the backbone,” Lawlor said.

For broadband installed in neighborhoods, Lawlor says there is the “middle mile” which is the primary fiber line and then the “last mile” of hooking it up to different homes.

Crews just started laying fiber in the Spring Point neighborhood on Orcas, servicing a total of 117 homes. The cost for each household is $2,500 for middle mile installation. The additional cost of getting broadband to each home varies, but Lawlor says county-wide, the average total cost is around $4,000. There are several variables: how many people commit to paying for the middle-mile and how difficult it is to get fiber to individual homes.

Rock Island offers a $1500 instant rebate on installation or $20 per month off the service bill for life. Of the $7.5 million that OPALCO has committed to investing in the project, $4.5 million of that goes toward rebate incentives.

If someone in a neighborhood opts out of the process now but they come back at a later date and want to hook up, they have to pay for both the middle and last mile and they are not eligible for the $1,500 incentive.

If a home sells, the new owners will not be subject to those additional costs but simply the last mile fee.

Once broadband is hooked up to people’s homes, Rock Island provides technical support. Lawlor is currently working on setting up a 24/7 “network operating center” that will be manned by both employees and a computer monitoring system.

“This is a very different beast and is managed differently,” he said. “It’s not necessarily human-intensive.”

There is an existing backbone of broadband surrounding Eastsound, but laying fiber down Main Street and North Beach is in the works, pending agreements from property owners.

Lawlor says some of the “cool” things Rock Island is working on is hosting a local Netflix server with 700 of the most popular titles in San Juan County. It is also collaborating with the fire department to improve emergency communication. Rock Island has set up three redundancy back-ups for 911 to avoid an outage like the one that occurred after a CenturyLink cable broke in late 2013.

Responding to criticism

Lawlor says the recent letters to the editor in the Sounder and Journal regarding concerns about the Rock Island acquisition and its “for-profit” status represent a minority.

“We have had hundreds of emails congratulating us,” Lawlor said. “People demanded that broadband had to be self-sufficient, so it has to be for-profit in order to do that. We are very lucky to have a parent organization that will make the initial investment. At the end of the day, people want this.”

Lawlor says once Rock Island becomes sustainable and functional on its own, it’s possible it could become a co-op like OPALCO.

Lawlor is particularly passionate about the boost that the islands’ economy will see from broadband installation.

“Seattle is the fastest growing city in the country and the San Juans can reap the spoils of that,” he said. “Where do those people buy second homes? They either go east or north.”