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.
[zipfinder] In April, we wrote about the formation of the Broadband Opportunity Council, a new federal government organization designed to promote the spread of broadband access. Co-chaired by the secretaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Commerce, the group is made up of elements from 25 federal agencies. It was given a deadline of 150 days to prepare a report on how to improve broadband quality and availability in the U.S. On August 20, the council turned in its homework early, three days before the due date, and briefed President Obama on its conclusions. On September 21, the council made that report public.
What’s in the report?
The council sorted its recommendations into four broad categories:
1.Update federal programs to support broadband. Adding broadband subsidies to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline program is a great example of this idea in practice.
2.Give communities an increased ability to attract and promote broadband.
3.Offer expanded access to federal resources, such as communications towers, for broadband use.
4.Advance our understanding of broadband through researching, collecting, and analyzing more data.
Fortunately, the council’s report includes specific examples for each of the categories to help turn ideas into real-world action. In all there are 36 specific recommendations, including the following.
Updating Federal Programs
• The U.S. Department of Agriculture should fund broadband through the Rural Development Community Facility Program, by expanding the RUS Telecommunications Program to allow additional investment in communities without adequate broadband availability, and by making broadband network construction eligible for the Rural Business Guarantee Loan Program.
• The Department of the Treasury should more clearly list broadband network construction projects eligible for federal tax credits.
• The Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should add broadband requirements for construction of new HUD-subsidized residences, and make broadband infrastructure eligible for funding via the Indian Community Block Grant Program and seven other community planning and housing programs.
• The Department of Labor should make broadband access allowable as an administrative cost for career centers.
• The Department of Health and Human Services should provide $25 million in grants to expand the use of broadband in health centers.
• All federal agencies should actively look for opportunities to promote broadband adoption and use, particularly on Indian reservations.
• Participating agencies should create best practice guidelines and offer technical assistance to communities.
• The National Telecommunications and Information Administration should build and maintain a single point of contact for obtaining broadband resources.
• President Obama should expand a previous executive order, directing the Department of Transportation to promote “dig once” policies, to other federal agencies involved in infrastructure funding, and these agencies should all work together for this purpose.
Making Federal Assets More Available
• The Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, the Interior, and Transportation and the General Services Administration (GSA) should collaborate to develop an inventory of federal assets that could be used to expand broadband access.
• The Department of the Interior should use assets, including the more than 4,000 telecommunications towers on Tribal Lands, to expand broadband access among the Native American population.
Collecting and Analyzing Data
• The Departments of Commerce, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, GSA, National Science Foundation (NSF), NTIA, and Institute of Museum and Library Services should create a research agenda for all areas of broadband innovation and expansion.
• The Department of Education should compile existing data about broadband availability in schools and in students’ homes.
• The NSF should request submissions for new technology to take advantage of expanded broadband access.
Why We’re Encouraged
It’s all too easy to provide recommendations on what needs to be done while not specifying who needs to do the actual work. Throughout the report, the council names the specific federal agencies it believes should support each action — and in many cases where the money should come from — making it clear who is responsible for what.
There’s also a proposed timeline with specific deliverables for each stage of each proposal, beginning in the first quarter of 2016. If the report is approved in its entirety and goals aren’t met, passing the buck might not be impossible, but it will be difficult.
What does this mean for you?
The size of the proposed undertaking and the number of federal agencies involved means one thing: the federal government now takes the country’s traditionally mediocre ranking in Internet speed seriously and is willing to do something about it on a large scale. The majority of specific proposals make it look as if any future action will have the greatest impact on those who have the least access to high-speed Internet service. However, one reason for providing access to federal resources is to spur competition, so those who have only one option for broadband may see competition produce lower prices than are currently available.
Realistically, it will be some time before any of us feel the effects of any of the Broadband Opportunity Council’s recommendations. If you want to improve the speed and quality of your Internet access starting now, enter your ZIP code below.