Group of Neighbors Uses Unlicensed Spectrum to Create Their Own Internet Service

November 9, 2015

Island living isn’t always a paradise—especially when your Internet connection is slow and unreliable. On Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands in Washington State, residents were faced with broadband service that was not only slow, but often prone to outages and proven to be a major point of frustration for the Island’s population.

Following a 10-day outage that left the Island completely disconnected, the Orcas Island community—largely farmers and ranchers—decided to take matters into their own hands, as recently profiled by Ars Technica. Instead of working through traditional service providers, the residents designed their own network and built it out with the help of local nonprofit Doe Bay Internet Users Association (DBIUA).

The resident-created broadband Internet network is completely wireless, operating across radios installed on trees and houses in the Doe Bay area of the Island. The radios communicate with a counterpoint on top of the Island’s water tower, which receives signals from a microwave tower across the water in Mount Vernon, Washington. The network uses a variety of bands of unlicensed spectrum to power the nearly 200 radios throughout the coverage area.

That’s right—the Island’s Internet innovation is powered by the unlicensed spectrum bands that keep microwaves running.  Chris Sutton, who helped to spearhead the Orcas Island project noted, “I think so many other communities could do this for themselves. There does require a little bit of technical expertise but it’s not something that people can’t learn. […] If we all get together and share our resources, communities can do this themselves and be more resilient.” This sort of self-sufficient problem solving is an empowering, albeit less recognized, benefit of exploration into unlicensed spectrum.

This community’s ability to connect the island relied on innovative, proprietary equipment designed to operate in the unlicensed spectrum space. The Orcas Island network is just one reason why EVOLVE and its members are working together or preserve unlicensed spectrum as a place for permission-less innovation.  The unlicensed policy framework works and has been a resounding success, producing a continuously evolving stream of new technologies, devices, apps, products, and services like the ones used in the Orcas Island project.

Stay tuned as EVOLVE highlights more stories like this in the coming weeks.