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3 Unique Challenges to Improving Broadband Infrastructure on Whidbey Island and Surrounding Settlements.

Roughly 35 miles north of Seattle, WA, a peaceful island is nestled in the Puget Sound amongst coastal communities and a handful of other islands, some inhabited and some not. It's known as Whidbey Island, named after Joseph Whidbey, who mapped the island while serving under Captain George Vancouver on the HMS Discovery's nautical voyage through the Pacific Northwest region in 1792. This island and the surrounding areas in Northwest Washington, such as San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lummi Island, and Point Roberts, to name a few, share a rich maritime culture with historical and modern industries centered around the region's natural resources, including fishing, farming logging, sailing, and eventually tourism (Caldbick, 2022). While the watery region is full of natural beauty and mystique, its unique attributes also present some challenges to providing goods and services to the area's communities.

A great example of how the area’s unique characteristics present challenges to industries in the region is telecommunications services. For large Internet Service Providers (ISPs), servicing rural and remote areas can often present logistical issues. These issues can discourage large corporations from servicing these areas, causing remote communities to experience no or very slow internet service. These areas with slower, less reliable broadband services are considered “broadband-underserved” or “broadband-unserved” if there are no internet services at all in a specific area.

Thankfully, federal grant programs like the National Telecommunications and Information Association's (NTIA) Middle Mile Infrastructure Grant connect smaller, more rural networks to larger, more developed ones. They provide opportunities for remote areas between large networks to improve their broadband infrastructure that they normally wouldn’t have. With the help of the grant program, Whidbey Telecom and ATCO Communications Services, LLC will provide broadband infrastructure upgrades to broadband-underserved communities in Northwest Washington, impacting Whidbey Island, Orcas Island, San Juan Island, Lummi Nation, and Point Roberts, among others.

While the grant will aid this effort, there are still factors that impact broadband equity in underserved and unserved communities. Let’s explore three challenges to improving broadband infrastructure on Whidbey Island and its surrounding settlements.

Drone shot homes on Whidbey Island, WA.
3 Unique Challenges to Improving Broadband Infrastructure on Whidbey Island and Surrounding Settlements.

1. Remote communities are often left out of network upgrades.

Often, ISPs need to operate with finite budgets and scope for major projects. For this reason, it can be difficult for large providers to take up massive-scale projects that connect rural areas without financial assistance, like a government grant such as the Middle Mile Infrastructure Grant Project or BEAD. Upgrading broadband infrastructure or building new infrastructure can be incredibly expensive and time-consuming, as conditions such as geography, weather, logistics, and other factors greatly impact project timelines and progress. When you live in a remote area, it’s critical to have access to reliable broadband services that can help people find education, professional, telehealth, and other opportunities that they may not have immediate access to. Not to mention that broadband internet services can be used to keep up with friends and family that may be hard to spend time with when living in a remote location. Improving broadband infrastructure in rural areas can lead to significant personal, educational, and financial benefits.

Drone shot taken over Whidbey Island, WA.
3 Unique Challenges to Improving Broadband Infrastructure on Whidbey Island and Surrounding Settlements.

2. Geographical challenges

Northwest Washington's geographical features make it unique compared to much of the country. Given that the area is made up of coastal communities on the mainland, islands, straits, and peninsulas, the best way to travel the region is easily by boat. This presents logistical obstacles for our car-centric society and drives up the cost of transporting equipment and building materials to project locations. The distance between settlements also leads to an increased level of difficulty and cost in a broadband infrastructure upgrade project. Vast sections of cables need to be laid underwater while also navigating through complex archaeological and conservation-based regulations in the region. To effectively connect the broadband-underserved communities in the region, ATCO, Whidbey Telecom, and their partners will need to conduct thorough underwater surveys of the projected locations and ultimately install over 63 miles of fiber cables securely on the seafloor.

Drone shot of the Whidbey Island Ferry.
3 Unique Challenges to Improving Broadband Infrastructure on Whidbey Island and Surrounding Settlements.

3. Weather factors in the region

While the ocean's proximity has benefits and attracts longtime residents and tourists to the region, it also has drawbacks. In addition to mere logistical obstacles, living surrounded by the ocean makes communities more vulnerable to powerful storms. While storms can obviously cause problems anywhere, strong winds blowing in off the sea can be extra destructive and significantly impact the size of waves, further increasing a storm's destructive potential. These ocean-fueled storms can damage infrastructure of all kinds, especially telecommunications infrastructure. In 1961, longtime local telecom service provider Whidbey Telecom transitioned its network to be 100% buried, making it less susceptible to outages caused by storm damage (Guthrie, 2019). Whidbey Telecom is the region's leading ISP and has provided telecom services since 1908. Their move to an all-buried network speaks to the challenges in providing services in the region. It’s because of these factors that, in addition to the installation of 63 miles of undersea fiber, ATCO and Whidbey Tel will also install 48 miles of buried cable on land throughout the process of upgrading the region’s broadband infrastructure.

Despite the remote region’s challenges, ATCO and Whidbey Telecom are a formidable team ready to tackle this project and build a more connected future for the residents of Whidbey Island and the surrounding settlements. The multi-million-dollar “Point Roberts Middle Mile Infrastructure Project” will ultimately install over 100 miles of fiber cable, some underground on land and some on the sea floor, ultimately upgrading the region’s broadband infrastructure and connecting 100,000+ residents of Northwest Washington to educational, telehealth, business, and other opportunities brought on through the internet. To learn more about the details of this project, check out our press release announcement:


Caldbick, J. (2022, October 30). Whidbey Island -- thumbnail history. Whidbey Island -- Thumbnail History.

Guthrie, P. (2019, January 15). Connecting past and present Whidbey Telecom’s goal: Whidbey News. Whidbey News-Times.

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