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The last straw: Orcas Island residents bypass Internet providers

Over the next year, Sutton and his partners, including a retired ad executive, a lawyer, a retired member of the Air Force, and a former IT worker, formed the non-profit Doe Bay Internet Users Association. (Creative Commons-Ministerio TIC Colombia)

Residents of Orcas Island were growing increasingly frustrated with slow Internet connection speeds and outages that would sometimes last for days.

The last straw was a 10-day outage in 2013 caused by a severed underwater cable.

Software developer, network administrator, and self described “tinkerer” Chris Sutton says that shared frustration eventually led to a shared solution.

“We live on Orcas Island and the Internet service is pretty abysmal,” Sutton explains. “We tried to sort of hang out for a number of years in the hope that someone else would come along and provide better service, but that didn’t happen and we finally just decided well lets figure out if we can do it ourselves.”

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Over the next year, Sutton and his partners, including a retired ad executive, a lawyer, a retired member of the Air Force, and a former IT worker, formed the non-profit Doe Bay Internet Users Association. They began testing different methods of getting internet onto the island, crunching numbers, and purchasing equipment.

“The biggest upfront cost was the microwave connection to the mainland. That was $11,000 to purchase that link … that’s a regulated FCC link. So that’s a major cost. But we decided we didn’t want to skip on that major uplink.”

Sutton says the group spent about $15,000 more on infrastructure and other radios, but they found one good way to cut costs.

“All the labor in this was free,” Sutton says. It could have cost as much as $50,000 to have someone else do the work. “We said, ‘lets put some sweat equity into this.'”

The service has been operating for about a year now, and Sutton says that for 7$75 a month their 50 customers receive whatever speeds are possible at their location.

“We strive to give you as fast as we can get,” Sutton says. “In some cases that’s 40-50 megabytes per second up and down. In some cases, in some hard to reach areas its five to eight up and down, which is still way faster than what people had before.”

Sutton says their neighbors’ expectations are totally different than it would be for other Internet providers.

“When you’re upfront with people and they know it’s a volunteer effort and they know its their neighbors …”

So what about those of us who don’t live on Orcas Island and are fed up with our current service providers?

“We’re out in the middle of nowhere and there’s no other competing frequency wireless network,” Sutton explains. “In a large apartment building, the owner could easily install connections to everyone.”

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