SMALL TOWNS: Washington Island celebrates 21st century connection

Updated: Dec. 22, 2022 at 6:00 PM CST
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WASHINGTON ISLAND, Wis. (WBAY) - Known for its natural beauty and splendor, Washington Island is also known as having some of the poorest internet service in the country.

But times on the island are changing.

This week in Small Towns, we discover what a new fiber optic cable means to the 700 folks who call the island home.

Separated by a four-and-a-half mile, and sometimes bumpy, ferry ride from the northern tip of Door County, those born and raised on Washington Island know all about being patient when it comes to the internet.

“As a family got our first computer, and this is my wife and I in 1992,” recalls Robert Cornell.

The problem back then, the internet service wasn’t worth a darn.

“There was dial-up service which was supposed to be 56K dial-up service, it was more like 12 to 16,” says Robert.

As manager of the Washington Island Electric Cooperative, Robert decided something had to be done.

In 2005, he organized a project to bring broadband internet through the power lines.

“The company that ran it was not well insured. There were tornadoes that went through one of their facilities down in Alabama, they ended up closing their doors. We kept the service running and then helped Frontier actually do a DSL project on Washington Island, which that has not really panned out particularly well either,” explains Robert.

Finally, in 2018, the island caught a break in the most unexpected way.

“A major disaster, which actually was declared a disaster by the governor,” says Robert.

The main power cable, running from the mainland under Death’s Door, failed, leaving the island without power for 12 days.

“Ice shoves pushed against this, flexed it, eventually one of these phases here, the insulation failed, got some water in it, and then it shorted out,” explains Robert.

Thanks to disaster aid which covered half the cost, the co-op installed a new $4 million, 5-mile-long submarine cable.

And this one had a fiber optic line.

“To say this was a black hole of internet would be an understatement, so when we found out there was a possibility of fiber coming over here that was really kind of mind-blowing,” says Nathan Drager, president of Quantum Technologies.

He’s overseeing the building of the new fiber optic network on the island.

“It’s been really exciting to see people’s reactions when they are able to do the things they’ve only dreamt of or heard of. Coolest project that our company has ever played a part in,” says Nathan.

“I would put it on an equivalent of getting electricity to be quite honest with you,” adds Robert.

In October, Washington Island School became the first to receive a high-speed connection.

What used to be an absolute headache for students -- “Unpredictable. I guess that’s the best way to explain it. Sometimes it was just kind of hard to get work done,” says freshman Rita Valentincic -- is now no longer a source of stress for students and teachers.

“Well it’s a 21st-century learning skill. Our kids need to know to have a job in the future. In this day and age, if you don’t know how to type, if you don’t know how to use basic word processing skills, create tables and write an email, respond to an email, if you don’t have access to that, a lot of jobs you would be out of luck,” says science teacher Miranda Dahlke.

Also now connected is the island’s Lutheran church.

“They used to download their church service, they record it and download it so people could watch it on YouTube. That would take them the better part of half a day if they could get it to complete. It took them ten minutes after we hooked them up,” explains Robert.

And Robert hopes as word spreads, the island will see more full-time residents.

“Roughly 250 occupied homes year-round, in the winter time, and we’re hoping this project turns that into 350 occupied homes so that there’s actually a restaurant open on Washington Island in the winter,” says Robert with a smile.

And every day or so, another fiber connection will only increase that likelihood.

“Patience wears thin when you start seeing your neighbors getting connected and other people getting lit up, so right now it really is a race to connect addresses as fast as possible,” says Nathan.

By the end of next year, more than 300 homes and businesses will be connected, with the entire island enjoying the fastest high-speed internet by 2027.

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Washington Island has one of the poorest internet services in the country