Lighting Up the Island: Robert Cornell

“Whether it takes two or five years, we will have a network-interface device at every home and business.”

– Robert Cornell

Let’s be clear, Robert Cornell insisted. 

“I will take credit for being the front man,” he said, or for putting into action what he said “a very supportive board” has empowered and enabled him to do. But that’s as far as it goes.

“You’ve probably figured out I’m not a limelight kind of guy,” Cornell texted after our interview when asking for assurances that the story “doesn’t become all about me, because it certainly isn’t me that did it all. It’s a group effort and should be about the cooperative.”

Cornell was referring to the Washington Island Electric Cooperative (Co-op), and the “it” was the company’s new mission to light up Washington Island with fiber-optic cable that will deliver one gigabyte of internet service to all island addresses – service that’s 100 times faster than the average U.S. internet speed, and monumentally faster than the mishmash of options that islanders currently have in DSL (digital subscriber line) service and limited satellite or wireless services. 

Cornell, 58, has been the Co-op’s manager for the past 21 years. Island born and raised, with ancestors on both sides going back 100 years and more, he went to college to study electrical engineering and began his career elsewhere. But there was never any doubt he’d be back. He told his Iowa-born wife this fact when she was still just his girlfriend and they were visiting his island home. 

“I told her, ‘Look around, because I’m going to come back, and it’s not negotiable,’” he said. 

Cornell is the third manager since the Co-op was founded in 1940 to procure electricity under the Rural Electrification Act plan. He succeeded Irwing Nelson, who succeeded the first manager, Ray Krause. A lot of similarities between Cornell and Krause can be found in the short history Krause wrote and visible on the Co-op’s website: “How Electricity Came to Washington Island.”

“I don’t want anyone to think I am trying to be a braggart, but the older persons on Washington Island will remember that I was mainly responsible for getting electricity here in spite of all the criticism and opposition,” Krause wrote in his introduction. “You will see ‘I’ written numerous times, not for me to boast, but that is the way it was.”

It’s the way it is for Cornell, too: humility and frank practicality appearing to characterize both men. What also hasn’t changed is the way that criticism and opposition dog innovation. Naysayers thought electricity a fad, and broadband has its detractors, too.

“Honestly, no matter what you do, half the people are mad at you,” Cornell said. “You need to look at what needs to be done and determine if the effort is worth the pain. In this case, it really is.” 

The Co-op supplies all the island’s electricity with power it purchases wholesale from Wisconsin Public Service (and it also has full generating capacity). In addition, the Co-op is now an internet service provider (ISP) for the broadband network it is building out and owns. 

How this all came to be would use far more words about Cornell than he would be comfortable reading. The long-story-short of it is that Cornell had already been thinking about ways to upgrade the DSL service the Co-op provided to some island residents by bringing broadband to all the Co-op’s customers. That preparedness found its opportunity in June 2018 when the submarine cable beneath Death’s Door that powered Washington Island failed due to years of accumulated damage from the ice shoves. By October 2022, a five-mile-long replacement had been fully installed. Bundled inside that index-finger-sized cable were hair-sized strands of glass fiber that would light up the island’s internet services.

That painfully short description glosses over almost five years’ worth of trips to Madison, much lobbying and all the work it takes to gain a partner – Cellcom/Nsight – and pull together $4.1 million from numerous sources to fund the project. Along the way, Cornell also drove a rule change that made all Wisconsin electrical co-ops, in the future, eligible for state disaster aid.

“I don’t know whether it’s skill or luck, but I’ve had to do a lot of lobbying,” he said.

None of this includes the grants written and received – two so far. One of those grants loops fiber around the Northport dock on the mainland, passing about 70 addresses in Liberty Grove along the way.

“That has now come to fruition,” Cornell said. “It’s an example of how one bad thing happening to one community ends up helping another community.”

The second grant, received in 2022, will allow the Co-op to light up the first 314 addresses. As of January before the hard stop for winter, roughly 40 of those connections had been made, including anchor institutions such as the medical clinic, town office and police and fire stations. 

The Co-op services a total of 1,100 electrical meters, so there’s a lot more to go. More grants will be needed before the job is done, and Cornell – or, rather, the Washington Island Electric Cooperative – won’t stop until that happens.

“If we don’t get this grant [a latest one applied for] we will get another one,” he said. “Whether it takes two or five years, we will have a network-interface device at every home and business.”

Maybe, just maybe, Robert Cornell will then allow the full story to be told of “How Broadband Came to Washington Island.” 

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