San Juan County’s unique broadband option to maintain net neutrality

San Juan County has become a leading example of how to provide high-speed internet access to a wide net of community members thanks to its co-op-backed Internet Service Provider. That ISP might also protect islanders from possible changes in federal regulations that could allow companies to control consumers’ internet content and access.

Broadband service

According to a representative from the Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association, San Juan County is home to one of three electrical co-ops in the state that sells broadband services (fast internet access).

That unique relationship prompted Victoria Compton, director of the San Juan County Economic Development Council, to be invited to speak to eight state senators at a Nov. 15 meeting in Olympia. She discussed the economic impacts of improvements to local broadband access.

After the Nov. 15 meeting, Washington Senator Lisa Wellman, who represents Mercer Island, told Compton that there are areas on Mercer that cannot connect to the internet thanks, partly, to its limited providers. Compton said San Juan County faced the same problem before the Orcas Power and Light Cooperative’s broadband project, when companies did not supply the bandwidth needed to connect additional customers.

“If you moved to Cape San Juan at that time, you couldn’t have internet,” Compton said. “You had to wait in line until somebody moved or died.”

Historically, San Juan County residents have mainly connected to the internet through the telecommunications company CenturyLink, whose staff declined to be interviewed for this article.

The EDC is a nonprofit, partly funded by the county and Town of Friday Harbor. It researched the broadband option before OPALCO’s internet project. Compton said attendees at a broadband workshop realized CenturyLink would not add additional bandwidth to the islands because the county’s small population equated to low sales.

“[CenturyLink staff] really had no interest in investing in us because we had a small population base and it didn’t pencil out to do improvements here,” said Compton. “We don’t have to worry about that same thing with Rock Island.”

OPALCO has owned the local Internet Service Provider, Rock Island Communications, since 2014. The ISP mainly uses fiber and LTE fixed wireless to connect customers to the internet, versus the telephone lines used by CenturyLink. This, said Mark Madsen, OPALCO board member, can hold more connections, over greater distances, with higher speeds.

Before OPALCO’s acquisition, Rock Island didn’t have a fiber network, but as of last February, the company’s staff laid 112.9 miles of fiber in the county, according to rockisland.com. Dan Burke of Rock Island also said they have added 2,300 fixed LTE wireless internet options in the county, as well. Fixed LTE wireless internet helps create access to areas that are hard to reach by cable or fiber lines, said Burke.

He explained that the OPALCO board used a $7.5 million loan to invest in the business. It was paid off in May 2016. Today, Rock Island operates as a separate business with separate finances. According to Madsen, the OPALCO board oversees Rock Island. Both entities have the same general manager, Foster Hildreth.

Net neutrality

According to Madsen, Rock Island’s mission is to guarantee internet service to OPALCO members, which in turn, would be accessible to anyone living in the county. This, he said, is a benefit for those worried about net neutrality changes at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

Net neutrality is an informal term that means companies cannot discriminate against users or content. That means companies can’t give higher connection speeds to preferred websites or completely block content that differs from staff’s political, social or business views. For instance, if staff at a technology company like Google paid an ISP more money than Yahoo, the company could provide faster access to Google sites.

“We as Rock Island and OPALCO have said ‘we will treat all of our customers equally, we will treat all of their traffic equally, we will not prefer one type of website over another,’” he said. “We are guaranteeing the same neutrality guidelines that have been the law.”

The FCC passed these rules in 2015 under the Obama administration to create more equitable broadband access throughout the country. However, the current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, selected by President Trump, has moved to loosen them.

Net neutrality prevents providers from charging extra for fast connections, similar to the way FedEx provides faster delivery than the U.S. Postal Service. Fewer regulations could help small businesses and therefore increase competition, said Chairman Pai in a November interview with National Public Radio. The commission will vote on whether the deregulation plan will pass on Dec. 14.

According to Madsen, 30 percent of the county’s internet customers have chosen Rock Island’s services since OPALCO took over the business, which operated, locally, for 20 years before the acquisition. The more islanders connected to Rock Island, he said, the more guarantee locals will have for fair use of the internet.

“We didn’t get into the broadband business because we wanted to protect people’s equal access to the internet, because it really wasn’t an issue at the time [that OPALCO acquired Rock Island],” said Madsen. “It’s not the reason we got into the business, but it’s a reason we should be glad we did.”

Orcas Online is another local ISP. It has purchased to use OPALCO’s original fiber network since 2008, then sells wireless connections from it to locals’ residences or businesses. Co-owner Stuart Baker said Orcas Online will also not restrict customers’ access or content despite possible changes at the FCC.

Universal services

The push for San Juan County to invest in broadband, said Compton, came when a CenturyLink submarine cable broke in 2013, leaving parts of the island without phone or internet access until it was completely restored in 10 days.

“That catastrophic break made all of us realize how important communications is to us,” she said.

As Washington’s current 911 service provider, Centurylink is contracted with the state government to supply the local 911 dispatch’s network; it’s CenturyLink’s network that answers calls to 911. There is no government mandate for internet connections.

The FCC classifies telephone access as a “universal service,” or public utility, that cannot be discriminated against. In 2007, broadband service was added to this classification, and it was further regulated with the addition of the net neutrality rules in 2015.

The divide between urban and rural broadband access continues, however, even under today’s listing as a universal service. According to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report, 39 percent of rural Americans do not have access to the commission’s defined speeds for broadband, compared to 4 percent of urban Americans. Those speeds are 25 megabits per second for downloads and four mbps for uploads.

Compton said that before Rock Island, 90 percent of the islands had 1.5 mbps.

“San Juan County lagged the nation and the region in broadband speeds for years,” she said.

Comparatively, the only hospital on San Juan Island requires a minimum of 21 mbps, according to the director who oversees technology, Sanjay Rughani. PeaceHealth Peace Island Medical Center uses the internet for patient registration, electronic medical records and medical equipment, he said.

Broadband access has become a part of island health and safety measures.

“It would have been extremely difficult to build out new medical clinics with good connectivity on Lopez,” said Madsen. “This is made possible by the new broadband service.”