San Juan Islands in Washington state: successful rural fiber broadband deployment

Too many rural areas in America still have slow broadband service. San Juan Islands (Washington State) used to have only DSL (1 Mbps) service provided by CenturyLink, and spotty cellular phone coverage from AT&T and Verizon. Recently, however, Orcas Power and Light (OPALCO), a rural electric cooperative, created a wholly owned private subsidiary called Rock Island Communications (RIC) to meet local demand for faster broadband.

RIC’s business is to provide high-speed broadband service based on the fiber optic backbone owned by OPALCO, which is deployed on the islands. For areas where fiber connections are too expensive to install, OPALCO has entered into a partnership with T-Mobile so that the latter can provide fixed LTE service using OPALCO’s fiber backbone.

Description of the areas served by OPALCO and T-Mobile LTE

The San Juan islands lie off the coast of Washington state. The largest islands are Orcas island, Lopez island, Shaw island and San Juan island. There are approximately 15,000 residents on the San Juan islands. They are a popular destination for whale watching, fishing, and boating, especially for people who live in Seattle. When RIC announced the rollout of high-speed broadband service, many people who work in Seattle and have second homes on the islands, signed up immediately. Indeed, Eagle Lake on Orcas Island has been a favorite second-home location for many Microsoft employees, many of whom complained about the lack of adequate broadband. The arrival of high-speed broadband service to the islands has benefited the community in two ways: (a) it has allowed people to spend more time in their second homes, working remotely; and (b) it has made their homes more valuable and more easy to sell.

Status of fixed broadband and LTE serviceAccording to RIC, there are approximately 1200 fiber connections (18 months after launch) and they are halfway to their targeted buildout of new customers. I don’t have the numbers relating to the number of LTE customers but I understand that T-Mobile’s network is available throughout the San Juan islands. Many of those who have signed up for fiber broadband service from RIC are people who run businesses on the island, second-home owners and retirees.

Fiber optic broadband monthly rate plans

$80: 25 Mbps Down/Up

$90: 50 Mbps Down/Up

$130: 100 Mbps Down/Up

$180: 200 Mbps Down/Up

All plans impose a $150 connection fee and there are no data caps. All are no-contract plans.

LTE Wireless Pricing

$75 per month: 7 to 15 Mbps down, no data caps, $100 activation fee ($50 if you pick up your device).

$53 per month: this is the 6-month LTE seasonal fixed wireless (allows usage in any single year up to the equivalent of 6 months of full-time usage).

$42 per month: this is the 3-month LTE seasonal fixed wireless (allows usage in any single year up to the equivalent of 3 months of full-time usage).All are no-contract plans and there is a 30-day money back guarantee.

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