Snow, terrain delay Internet backup project

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer January 08, 2013 04:05 pm

Lawnmowers in the summer and snow in the winter are now to blame for the lack of redundant broadband Internet service on the South Coast.

Redundant broadband Internet ensures that those using the Internet – via credit cards, 911 service, television and online banking, among other uses – will not lose service when a line is cut. That happened twice last year – once when a lawnmower struck a fiber optic line and another time by fire.

Internet subscribers were hoping redundancy would be in place by last November, but are going to have to wait until spring before it becomes reality, as snow and steep terrain between Gasquet and O’Brien – the “Gasquet Gap” – have delayed construction this winter.

 

“We’d hoped it would be complete by the end of the calendar year (2012),” said County Commissioner David Itzen. “But we’ve found difficulties in the last leg. And there are a ton of regulatory agencies involved; it’s very difficult.”

The system itself is pretty simple, said John Irwin, owner of J Irwin Consultants in Central Point and among the driving forces to get the system in place.

“Imagine Interstate 5 and 101 as rails of a ladder,” he said. “Redundancy provides the rungs.”

One rail runs down the coast, from Astoria to Crescent City. One of the many “rungs” established in the northern parts of the state now links the Umpqua Valley, in Roseburg, to Bandon.

If a break were to occur, South Coast subscribers lose service. The new “rung,” from Grants Pass to Crescent City, will create a loop – Crescent City to Bandon to Roseburg and south to Grants Pass – and allow for quick rerouting of those services to avoid lapses in service.

“Broadband is the ladder to the future, and we are slowly but surely trying to fill in those rungs on the ladder,” Irwin said. “You will have as good or better connectivity than urban centers in Oregon – better than in northern California.”

It was well on its way to meeting its November 2012 deadline when workers in Gasquet and O’Brien were hit with inclement weather.

“There are relatively few miles left, but Mother Nature is a power above all of us,” Irwin said. “There’s quite a bit of snow on the ground and terribly rugged landscape.”

And the paperwork.

“There were all sorts of environmental, archeological, biological reviews,” he said. “We’ve got two states, two forest jurisdictions – which are like their own feudal empires – and the BLM was involved. It took about a year just to get permitting in place. And it’s not something they’re used to doing. The only utility was established before some of those people were born.”

Charter Communications is building the legs; Oregon Health Network has been managing the financial end and utility companies from both states are included in negotiations.

“These thing are complicated,” Irwin added. “There are a lot of moving parts; the politics involved, the funding involved. It had to be positioned as a very strong business venture.”

Economics

The $2 million cost to lay the 10-gigabit wire from Grants Pass to Crescent City should more than pay for itself in years to come, Irwin and Itzen agree.

“Imagine a very, very small straw, the kind you get in a cocktail, compared it to standing up in a culvert,” Irwin said. “You get a sense of scale. One is a little, itty bit that allows only so much to go through at one time, compared to how much can go through a culvert. It may be not most elegant comparison, but it’s often used as an example to demonstrate the difference. It’s a big, big, big pipe.”

Both are excited about the possibilities it will open to those in the medical field.

“Once it’s complete through both hospital systems, you can sit in a room and speak to a specialist, so you don’t have to make a long trip to Medford,” Itzen said. “You get instant analysis, instant medical test results.

“And banks, high-tech industries,” he added. “I’ve been in contact with people who have said they will not come here until it’s in place. For me, the advantage is to encourage businesses to relocate, or existing ones to expand, that would be reliant on this service.”

“It needs to be made to generate payback down the line,” Irwin said. “It’s an act of faith in some ways. But the more we do it, the better we get at it.”

When the connection is complete, Irwin expects many businesses to take a second look at the area.

“This is where Curry County has a tremendous opportunity,” he said. “They are typically green businesses, they’re people looking for a lifestyle place, and they’re bringing money from outside and spending it locally. I know there are some people poised and ready to hear this is an accomplished fact.”

Irwin is excited about the benefits.

“When a business moves to an area, they ask, ‘Do you have redundant broadband?’” he said. “It’s so critical to be up all the time. (It will benefit) distant education, public safety, access to government, medical. It has an impact that goes well beyond economic development.”

These “societal externalities,” as he calls them, are the underpinnings of society, critical factors that work hand in fist with economic development activities.

“To understand how to get the gold out of ‘dem dar’ hills,” Irwin said, “is to develop a business profile and develop that demand profile. Highlight the business opportunity in the community, get their attention and the investment follows. The money comes.

“Oregon is now one of the better networked states in the United States – hands down,” he continued. “Multiple carriers, competition, redundancy. It’s still not everywhere, but we’re not done. We’re not done by a long shot. We have to be both patient and stubborn. Little ol’ Oregon does a lot.”