Typically, residents of communities without broadband access can look to one of two options for improving their Internet speed: private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) or a municipal network.

However, the community of Doe Bay, located on Orcas Island just off Oregon’s northern coast, isn’t typical. Its geography and its small population meant no one was interested in improving the island’s 1.5 Mbps Internet connection, which in practice was often barely better than dial-up. After losing their link to the Internet completely for 10 days, members of the community decided to do something about it: they built their own network.

The Doe Bay Internet Users Association

Though members of the community built it, this is not a municipal network. A group of five local residents formed the Doe Bay Internet Users Association (DBIUA), took out a $25,000 loan, and did what most would assume to be impossible: they built a network that exceeds the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) 25 Mbps threshold for broadband service and is actually faster than the national average.

Building the Network

The DBIUA’s solutions to typical network problems are clever. They began with a microwave radio link to the mainland using a transmitter placed on the island’s highest structure, a water tower. Because there weren’t enough tall buildings or communications towers on the island to build the rest of the wireless network, they used what they did have: trees. And to test whether a particular tree was a good choice for network relays, which require line of sight to work, they used drones to make sure that each relay could see the next in line before they actually put the relays in place. The atypical network even had atypical teething problems: the cause of one early network outage was a sheep, and improving network performance sometimes involves pruning trees.

The network went live in 2014, and around 50 homes are now connected to the network. Local residents are able to join the DBIUA for $150. The necessary equipment costs $125, and service is $75 per month. Total bandwidth is around 70 Mbps. During peak use, customers typically use a combined 30 Mbps, so although the system doesn’t have a tremendous amount of bandwidth, it has enough to keep videos streaming and users happy. If additional members in the DBIUA mean that additional capacity is necessary, the group can increase capacity by adding more radio relays.

Not for Everyone

It’s impossible not to admire the level of ingenuity and determination the DBIUA displayed in solving their lack of high-speed Internet access. Chris Sutton, one of the organization’s founders, believes that if Doe Bay can do it, so can other communities — and some small, rural communities without other options probably should consider this kind of approach. There’s no reason it couldn’t work as a municipal network, at least not under the right circumstances.

However, the DBIUA solution probably isn’t a realistic one for every rural resident. If you’re looking for broadband access, but the DIY route just isn’t an option, enter your ZIP code below to see the plans, prices, and speeds available in your area.

 

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