Washington Island Internet Provider Pulling Plug

Washington Island’s key Internet service provider is shutting down.

Officials from International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC), a company that provides broadband over power lines (BPL) to rural communities, did not respond to a request for comment but did issue the following statement in an email to their customers:

“Due to our inability to overcome the financial damage from the April 27, 2011 tornadoes that ravished some of our major service areas, we regret that we have no other option than to close our doors and cease operations.

“IBEC has fought hard in this battle and cares greatly for rural American and we detest watching the national carriers ignore the communication needs of so many hard-working families across the nation.”

Service is expected to continue through the end of January, but customer support will end Jan. 16.

The announcement affects approximately 250 customers on Washington Island who get their Internet service through the company. Email service accounts, domains, and websites hosted by the company will need to be moved to other providers.

The manager of the Washington Island Electric Co-op, Robert Cornell, said islanders are scrambling to transition to other providers. The co-op will work to keep existing service up through January but will not take over the system.

“We’ll do what we can to assist our members in whatever way we can,” Cornell said.

Cornell said he’s working with Frontier, which rolled out Digital Service Line (DSL) service in some parts of the county in 2011, to try to expand their offerings on the island. Frontier’s service would be an upgrade for most of IBEC’s former customers. Customers could also pick up service through wireless service provider NEWWIS, Cellcom’s wireless service, or satellite-based internet.

Tim Ullman, who heads the Door County Department of Information Systems, expressed frustration with the continuing struggle to provide broadband service to rural areas. The services available to provide internet on the island rely on a microwave signal to get information to and from the island, rather than a hard-wired infrastructure. He sees the IBEC pull-out as a sign of short-sightedness by local, state and federal officials. Ullman said he has pushed for a fiber network throughout the county for many years, but private companies will never invest in rural fiber networks. Unfortunately, Ullman said, neither will government.

“This was experimental technology anyway,” he said. “So now we have spent all this time and money and energy investing in a technology that didn’t work, and the people on the island are left right back where they started years ago, in the backwaters of broadband.”

The solution, Ullman said, is to run a marine fiber cable to the island, but there’s no market to pay back a private investment in fiber. But like telephone lines, quality roads and electricity before it, high-speed Internet is quickly becoming not just a luxury, but a necessity.

“For public safety, for education, and for business you don’t have a choice anymore,” Ullman said. “We should just make the investment, run the fiber and be done with it and move on. Make it the crown jewel of rural broadband. Private companies will just continue to put short-term solutions on the table that are two to three steps behind what they already have down in the Fox Valley.”