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‘An historic time for Washington Island’

Fiber connection to benefit residents, businesses, visitors year round

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November 17, 2022

WASHINGTON ISLAND – Ray Krause is known by many as the man who brought electricity to Washington Island.

It is a story, Robert Cornell, who was born and raised on the island, said he has heard many times.

As manager of the Washington Island Electric Cooperative, Inc. (WIEC) and part of the team that helped bring fiber internet to the island, Cornell now has his own story to tell.

One thing Cornell said he wants to make clear is that it didn’t start out as a fiber internet project – it was a “keep the lights on project.”

“The fiber is incidental,” he said.

The background
Washington Island previously relied solely on a microwave connection (a type of wireless delivery) to the mainland for landline telephone, including 911 service and internet.?

Cornell said the fiber conversation started in 2018 when the island’s submarine cable (which brings electricity from the mainland to the island) failed, leaving Washington Island without power for 12 days.

He said this prompted the WIEC to start looking at a long-term fix.

“We got the cable fixed, but we knew we couldn’t count on that cable because the damage was cumulative due to ice shoves,” he said. “We also knew not only was there additional damage to the cable, but we had two slices that were great big targets for the next ice shoves to come along and grab.”

Prior to this, Cornell said Cellcom, an Nsight company, was making its way up the Door County Peninsula with its middle-mile fiber project – which is the base infrastructure necessary to connect fiber to homes and businesses. 

At the time, Cornell said it didn’t make sense for Washington Island to get involved.

“Nsight came to me on the island and said, ‘Hey, would you be willing to partner on a submarine fiber?’” he said. “At that point, we didn’t have a failed cable and there was no economic justification for us to do it. So, that was a pipe dream.”

Brighid Riordan, CEO of Cellcom, said it has been a dream of company engineers for years to get to the island with fiber.

“We’ve actually looked at what it would take for years, and it was so expensive, to cost prohibitive,” she said.
Then the island’s submarine cable failed.

“I called Nsight and I said, ‘Hey, just a few years ago we were talking about doing this, now’s the time,’” Cornell said.

In the meantime, he said he reached out to the Kerite Company inquiring about putting fiber in a submarine cable.

Brighid Riordan, the CEO of Cellcom, said as crews slowly unspooled the cable and laid it on top of the furthest part of the lake. Submitted Photo

“I asked (them), ‘Do you ever put fiber in a submarine cable?’” he said. “And they said, ‘Yeah, we do it all the time. We run submarine cables off the oil platforms and they get to have communication.’ So, I actually specified the replacement (electricity) cable with fiber inside it.”

Cornell said the submarine cable project for WIEC came with a $4.1 million price tag.

“It was an opportunity for us to offset a little bit of cost,” he said. “We wrote a joint grant for the fiber in the submarine cable, and we were successful. So, that created a little bit of a cost offset.”

Cellcom and WIEC partnered on two broadband grants from the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin in 2018 and 2021, which divided the costs between an investment from Cellcom, an investment and in-kind work from WIEC and grant funding.

Getting there
On a clear day, the Door County mainland can be seen in the distance from the shores of Washington Island and though it’s only about four-and-a-half miles from the peninsula – it’s four-and-a-half miles from the peninsula.

“Four-and-a-half miles is a long span for fiber optic,” Riordan said. “With fiber optic, you look at cost per foot.”

She said the Washington Island project has been one 10 years in the making.?

“Doing the last end of the fiber off of a peninsula to an island means you needed an entire network to get up there first,” she said. “We had to get up to Sturgeon Bay first, and then we started building across the peninsula.”

Which Riordan said was a difficult project in itself.

“It’s hard to build in Door County,” she said. “In some places, there’s only a quarter inch of topsoil, and when you’re burying fiber, that’s not what you want to see. So, you need to bring in the big machines. You also don’t want to deface the beauty either. So, there are many obstacles when looking at serving a place like Door County and Washington Island.”

Navigating through different permits with the Department of Natural Resources and private property owners, Riordan said “this has been a labor of love for many, many years.”

“It’s been more than probably $20 million in investment and a commitment to people in Door County to say, ‘you deserve the best in communications as well,’” she said.

The process
Riordan said part of the reason why the submarine cable was affected by ice shoves previously, is because it followed the same path as the Washington Island Ferry.

“That’s where they ran into the problem,” she said. “There’s too much of a valley or something where they laid it – which makes sense with Death’s Door (or Porte des Morts Passage’– the passage located between the northern tip of the peninsula and Washington, Pilot, Plum and Detroit islands) and the currents. They realized they put it in a precarious position, but they didn’t know that back then.”

The two 10,000-square-foot reels of cable, a crane and all the ancillary equipment were transported across the water on a barge. Submitted Photo

Cornell said as plans began to unfold, a decision was made to move the cable’s route.

Riordan said engineers utilized the lake’s topography to find a better option.

“We took it from the north porch, which is literally right where you pick up the ferry – you can actually see all the fiber there,” she said.

The new route, Cornell said, travels from the mainland, under Plum Island (a former U.S. Coast Guard station and currently a part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge by U.S. Fish and Wildlife) and then to Washington Island.

“We had to do a little bit of negotiating with U.S. Fish and Wildlife,” he said. “Crossing a national wildlife refuge is not an easy task, but we made it happen.”
Riordan said the approximate 10,000-square-feet reels of cable (there were two) weighed about 14 pounds per foot.
She said they were carried across the water on a barge.

“The barge also had a crane on it, as well as all the ancillary equipment,” she said. “You’re essentially taking that cable and you’re unspooling it and laying it on top of the furthest part of the lake.”

The result
Cornell said by the end of the project, every home, business and anchor institution on the island will have access to speeds of one gigabit per second (1000 Mbps) with future expansion possible.

“I was born and raised on the island, and then I left for about 18 years,” he said. “I’ve been back for 21 years now, but when I came home, we had dial up on the island. Dial-up speed is 56K, and we were probably getting 16K at the best. So, it was obvious at that point that things were pretty bad.”

In the years since, Cornell said other companies brought a handful of internet options to the island, but issues still arose.

“Then this cable failure came along, and that opportunity opened up for us to connect (to fiber),” he said. “We’re going to be offering 100 megabytes, up and down – it’ll be symmetrical service. That’s the bottom tier. Then there is 300 megabytes and then one gig.”

Cellcom brought fiber to the island, WIEC will take it the final leg – connecting it to residents and businesses.

Cornell said the process to hooking folks up is already underway and will be completed soon.

“The first customer (of electricity in December 1945) was the Washington Island High School, which is now the Washington Art Nature Center – the reason for that was because the high school students were going to be the future members of the cooperatives,” he said. “Wth this fiber project, we gave a little hat tip to Ray Krause and his first board, and the first (fiber) customer was the Washington Island School.”

Cornell said the fiber option will not only help residents/businesses save money, but also provide the island with a consistent connection.

“It’s going to allow businesses to have a stable connection for point of sale and for those (things) that every place else has that we don’t – like public Wi-Fi to connectivity for meetings,” he said. “We fully expect that by the time we’re done with this project, we’ll have a 100% take rate from the members of the cooperative.”

Riordan said making sure that residents and businesses on Washington Island have the same access to all of the things that drive our economy today is important.

“Starting with the schools, to the farmers, to the businesses, to those who are working out of their home – they need to be able to be connected all the time, like the rest of us are,” she said.

Riordan said their place in the world happens to be on an island, but that doesn’t mean they should have less as far as communication services.

“What’s fascinating about this project is once it’s finished, they will have leapfrogged so much of rural America, and that is a credit to their foresight and I think our dream of getting there,” she said.

Expanded opportunities
Cornell said this project also opens the possibility of year-round occupants.

“We’ve already been told by a number of our members that are seasonal that as soon as they’re connected, they move to the island permanently because they can work remotely,” he said.

“We have a fair number of people that would love to live here year-round if they could make a living here,” he said. “The island’s economy is largely tourism based, but with the whole work-from-home movement that was proven to work with the COVID-19 pandemic, it can become a reality if we’ve got activity here.”

Cornell said he doesn’t expect to see a huge influx of homes being built or folks deciding to move to the island, because getting there still requires a ferry ride.

“It doesn’t matter whether we’ve got good internet or not, you can’t just hop in the car and go to Walmart at seven o’clock at night,” he said. “And in the winter months, the boat only runs twice a day and you have to have a reservation – so it takes a lot of planning.”

But what Cornell said he could envision seeing is some of the island’s seasonal residents choosing to make the move year-round.

“I’m expecting to see a fair number of what are now seasonal homes become year-round homes,” he said.

Which Cornell said could have an impact on a handful of things.

“If we can go from 250 homes – and that’s just a rough estimate – occupied year round to 350 homes that are occupied year round as a result of this project,” he said, “there might be justification for a couple of restaurants to stay open year round, there might be justification for the ferry to run four times a day in the winter rather than twice – which is a huge, huge lifestyle improvement for people on the island.”

Cornell said this in turn affects the island’s economy.

“Because those people that are now living here are going to be buying groceries in the grocery stores, they’re going to be buying gasoline at the gas station, they’re going to be buying electricity for their house,” he said. “So, all of those dollars stay on the island rather than be gone for the winter.”

Improved phone service
Cornell said a side benefit of the fiber connection is better overall connectivity.

Our conductivity… has been very sporadic,” he said. “There’s a microwave tower here that communicates with another microwave tower over in Ellison Bay – that’s roughly about 15 miles away.”

Cornell said at one point in 2019, the tower went down, and the island went nine days without service.

“The service is up and down every single day,” he said. “We have my cell phones, which are internet based. And there’s not a day we don’t have to reset them at least twice because of lost connectivity. So, this is going to provide stable connectivity for the island, because we’re also going to offer a phone service.”

Robert Cornell, manager of the Washington Island Electric Cooperative, Inc., said it’s been a lot of work on Nsight’s part, and it’s going to be even more work on WIEC’s part, “but by the time we’re done, we’ll be in a pretty good place.” Submitted Photo

In addition, Cornell said cell phone service on the island will also see a drastic improvement.

“By having that fiber backhaul…, that’s going to stabilize the cell surface to a certain extent,” he said. “It’s also going to allow Cellcom to work with us and provide some small cell coverage for some of the dead spots on the island.”

Cornell said Washington Island is home to the busiest beach in Door County – Schoolhouse Beach Park – and has no cell service.

“There is a sporadically working landline phone that’s attached to a tree,” he said. “So, what that means is, here’s the busiest beach in Door County and there’s no access to 911 service unless somebody runs a quarter of a mile up the hill.”

Riordan said providing service to an island surrounded by the Great Lakes and Death’s Door is difficult.

“But we have already set up places where we (we’ll install) small cells to extend their service,” she said.

Riordan said the sky’s the limit for the island.

“When we talk about smart communities, they are going to be perfectly positioned (to be) a smart island,” she said. “If they want agricultural sensors, if they want that to be based off of 5G, if they want a private network for the island, if that’s something that interests them – they will be outfitted with state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line connectivity to build their dreams on. That’s the bottom line.”

In many ways, Riordan said the project serves as a blueprint of sorts – showing there are many ways to achieve rural connectivity goals and how having two organizations – WIEC and Cellcom/Nsight – coming together can make great things happen.

Cornell said it’s been a lot of work on Nsight’s part, and it’s going to be even more work on WIEC’s part, “but by the time we’re done, we’ll be in a good place.”

“What started out as an idea and dream to bring high-speed broadband to the island is now a reality,” he said. “Much like bringing electricity to the island, it’s truly a historic time.”

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