Washington Island, Wisconsin Getting Fiber Upgrade Thanks to Local Cooperative

The Washington Island Electric Cooperative is preparing to deliver affordable fiber broadband access to long-neglected communities across Washington Island, Wisconsin. The first subscribers are expected to receive service sometime later this month, and the entire island is slated to be upgraded sometime around 2027.

With the cooperative partnering with Quantum Technologies on the fiber deployment, which began in April of 2021 and is expected to be finished by 2027, the first phase will connect key anchor institutions like the police department, schools, town hall, and the region’s visitor centers.

Currently, a single wireless microwave tower connects all island broadband, as locals painfully discovered during a nine-day 2019 outage. As members of the Washington Island Electric Cooperative await the new service, the only options available now are through Centurylink, Frontier DSL, traditional satellite, or next-gen satellite service like Starlink (assuming island residents can even get the service and afford its first month $710 service charge). 

Obtaining better island connectivity has been a long standing battle. The island had flirted with broadband over powerline (BPL) broadband tech, but the technology’s inherent interference issues — and a series of tornadoes that ravaged the area in 2011 — caused the ISP providing the service, Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC), to shut down operations in 2012

Washington Island Electric Cooperative aims to connect roughly 225 homes or so a year on the 125 square mile island until the project is completed in 2027. Once completed, the island’s approximately 700 local residents will have access to symmetrical speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $59.95 a month, and symmetrical speeds of 1 Gigabit per second for upload/download speeds of 100 megabytes per second for $89.95 a month.

“These are not ‘teaser’ rates and should remain stable so long as our operating costs remain stable,” Washington Island Electric Cooperative Manager Robert Cornell promised in a statement. “If, in the future, we are put in a position to increase rates,” he adds, “we would aim to increase speeds as well.”

Neither organization responded to a request for comment on how much the entire project will cost. A recent survey posted to Facebook by the Washington Island Electric Cooperative states the co-op is asking residents to conduct speed tests to better map broadband access across the island in order to qualify for Wisconsin state broadband grants. 

“The speed tests will illustrate the fact that the Island is unserved despite FCC mapping information,” the co-op said. “This will help with justification for further grant funding.”

Washington Island Electric Cooperative will own the finished network and be the ISP for local residents with Quantum Technologies operating in an advisory capacity. 

“This is a really exciting project,” Nathan Drager, owner of Quantum Technologies, said of the effort. “When we’re done, Washington Island will go from having the worst Internet service in Door County to having the newest, best and fastest network in all of northeastern Wisconsin.”

Quantum says it will maintain a physical presence on the island once the network is completed in order to provide support for ongoing network maintenance. Washington Island Electric Cooperative’s pivot toward broadband is part of a larger national trend of cooperatives and utilities expanding their business offerings to better serve neglected communities, while taking advantage of an historic influx of federal broadband funding

* This story has been updated from a previous version to better clarify the role of Quantum Technologies 

Inline map of Washington Island courtesy of Google Maps

Inline image of network construction courtesy of Washington Island Electric Cooperative