Quantum Technologies and the Washington Island Electric Cooperative: Building the Fastest Network In Northeast Wisconsin

In early October, Quantum Technologies, in partnership with the Washington Island Electric Cooperative, will begin connecting the first residents of Washington Island to a new network that will provide a fiber optic connection to the internet.

Begun in April 2021, the installation of Washington Island’s fiber network will be a 5-phase project that will end in 2027. “We’re currently about halfway through the first phase.” says Nathan Drager, owner of Quantum Technologies. In this first phase, Quantum Technologies will be connecting the Island’s “anchor” institutions—for instance, the police station, the school, the town hall, the visitor center. “In each subsequent phase,” Drager explains, “we’ll be connecting around 225 houses a year or more.”

“This is a really exciting project,” Drager remarks, adding, “When we’re done, Washington Island will go from having the worst internet service in Door County to having the newest, best, and fastest network in all of Northeastern Wisconsin.”

What exactly is fiber optic internet?

A fiber optic internet connection is the fastest way to access the internet. To make a comparison, downloading a 2-hour long, 4.5 gigabyte (GB), high definition movie takes around 38 seconds if you have a 1,000 megabyte per second (Mbps) fiber connection. With a cable connection that same download takes around 6.5 minutes—with a DSL connection, nearly 26 minutes.

So, what’s the difference? Primarily it’s the material used to transfer information from point to point. DSL and cable internet both use copper wire to transmit data—the same stuff that has carried voices across telephone lines since the 1870s. Fiber optic cables use thin glass filaments—called fibers—to transmit data via high-frequency wavelengths of light. 

The big difference between copper wire and fiber has to do with two things: signal attenuation, which refers to the loss of signal strength in networking cables due to internal or external factors; and signal distortion, which comes from a variety of sources, including temperature and frequency interference. Even attenuation can cause distortion, in that as signals get weaker, they become more distorted.

With DSL and cable internet connections, attenuation and distortion increase as the data travels over longer and longer distances, and with the increase in attenuation and distortion comes a decrease in speed. Alternatively, with fiber optic cable, signal strength remains consistent regardless of distance—in other words, less attenuation results in less distortion and higher speeds.

Types of fiber internet connection

There are 3 types of fiber internet connection. Two of these—fiber to the node (FTTN) and fiber to the curb (FTTC)—combine fiber and copper cable, meaning both FTTN and FTTC are not able to completely utilize the benefits of the fiber optic line, resulting in suboptimal—that is, reduced—internet speeds.

Fiber to the home (FTTH), as the name suggests, means the internet connection, from start to finish (the home), is fiber optic cable. This is the fastest type of internet connection to have and it is what the residents and businesses on Washington Island will get. “Every home and business on the island will have a high-speed internet connection,” Drager says, “and when I say ‘high-speed,’” he adds, “I mean the best and the fastest connection possible.”

The best internet connection at an affordable price

While there are currently fiber internet connections in Door County, they don’t come cheap, and the addresses that can get fiber are mostly business or enterprise class. “For example, we have fiber here at Quantum Technologies, but it’s expensive—over $1,000 a month,” Drager explains. “So, tech companies, the hospital and banks, these are the types of facilities that have fiber connections. But, from an affordability standpoint, they’re off limits for most residents.”  

However, because the network is going to be owned by the Washington Island Electric Cooperative, and because the Co-op is going to be the internet service provider (ISP), the internet fee will just be an addition to residential and commercial electric bills. Initial rates are expected to be:

  • $59.95 a month for upload/download speeds of 100Mbps
  • $89.95 a month for upload/download speeds of 1Gbps 

“These are not ‘teaser’ rates and should remain stable so long as our operating costs remain stable,” says Robert Cornell, manager at the Washington Island Electric Cooperative. “If, in the future, we are put in a position to increase rates,” he adds, “we would aim to increase speeds as well.”

Building a network from scratch—laying the submarine cable

Washington Island’s internet connection has always been spotty at best. “Right now,” Drager notes, “the whole island is only connected to the internet with a wireless link. So, the school, the hospital, all of the businesses, everyone is reliant on that link, and they lose service all of the time. At one point, the Island lost service for 9 days when the microwave radios failed.”

The solution to Washington Island’s internet problems began with what was actually an even bigger problem. In June of 2018, the 23,000 foot submarine cable that provided power to Washington Island failed due to years of accumulated damage from ice shoves. Washington Island was left without power for 12 days while residents and businesses relied on generators to get by. “We repaired the cable,” Cornell says, “but, we knew because of where the cable was routed, and because of the ice shoves that affect that area of the strait, it was just a matter of time before we would have to go through this again.” 

The Co-op made the decision to completely replace the submarine cable and to reroute it through an area of the strait that was not subject to shove ice—from the tip of the Door Peninsula, across Plum Island, to Washington Island. 

At the same time, Cornell thought maybe the Co-op could use this project to improve Washington Island’s internet service. “Robert had this idea,’ Drager relates, “that if we attach a fiber optic cable to the submarine cable, we may not be able to use it right away, but at least it’s there.” “When it came time to manufacture the new cable,” Cornell adds, “I specified including a fiber optic line in the cable as well”—an addition that would both greatly increase the Island’s internet speed and reliability.

“Sort of one thing after the other”

That seemingly simple addition turned out to be more complicated than expected. “As the cable was being manufactured it would be load tested at various points in the process,” Cornell relates. “During one of those load tests,” he continues, “there was a fault that melted the fiber being manufactured into the cable. These are 10,000-foot lengths of cable, and the fault happened around 4,500 feet into the process. At that point, you’re not going to unwrap everything and start over again. Instead, they removed the fault and spliced the cable, but unfortunately,” he adds, “once the cable was back together, the subsequent test results of the fiber were no longer any good.”

While the first fiber optic cable proved unusable, the idea to provide Washington Island with a permanent and reliable internet connection remained. Instead, as the power cord was laid by the Co-op and Roen Salvage, a separate 36-strand armored fiber cable was laid right alongside the power cable. But again, they hit a snag—this time literally. “For various reasons, during the installation of that cable, the pulling cord for the fiber got tangled in about 1,000 feet of 10-inch conduit, and got stuck somewhere between the shore and about 1,000 feet out into the water—sort of one thing after the other.”

With winter quickly approaching, the fiber project was put on hold so the Co-op could finish laying the new power cable. The following spring, the Co-op resumed laying the submarine fiber cable, contracting with small barge operator Tom Jordan and again with Roen Salvage to ensure the replacement submarine fiber cable followed the same route as the recently installed power cable.

Building a network from scratch—Quantum Technologies comes on board

“That’s how the relationship with Quantum Technologies started,” Cornell recalls. “I’m a big advocate for keeping things local,” he adds, “and this is a multimillion dollar project. If we’re going to spend millions of dollars, much like the initial cable project, I’d rather keep the millions of dollars here in Door County. So,” Cornell continues, “once we got into the next section of the project, I basically said, ‘What do you think? Can you guys help us with the splicing and the in-home installation?’ And, we ended up having some really extensive conversations with Nathan and his team about capabilities.”

“Winning over Robert was not easy,” Drager comments, “He brought us up to Washington Island and vetted us for around 6 months.” He continues, “Robert brought in Nsight, the parent company for Cellcom, and the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative. NRTC even sent in a team from Georgia to meet with us, and at the final meeting, they brought in the engineer that designed the whole network on Washington Island, and within 5 minutes he was saying, ‘These guys are good. Let’s do it!’”

Building a network from scratch—connecting Washington Island

“There’s a big difference between what we’re doing and what cable internet providers generally do,” Drager explains. “For example,” he continues, “when you call the cable company and make an appointment to get the internet installed, the technician comes out and connects you to a pre-existing network. Now that the submarine fiber cable has been laid,” he adds, “what we’re doing is not only connecting people to the network, but building out the entire network as well.” 

Throughout the 5-phase process, Quantum Technologies and the Washington Island Electric Cooperative will be working together as a team. “We’ll be working with the Co-op’s 2 linemen, and we’ll have our own team,” Drager says. “When we start connecting addresses, there will be a total of 6 technicians on the island.”

As the network is built out, fiber cable will run along the Island’s roads to each address, either underground or across power poles. The basic process will work like this:

  • The Co-op’s linemen will do the initial fiber cable installation. 
  • Half of Quantum’s team will follow the Co-op’s linemen, feeding the fiber cable into a fusion splicing trailer, rerouting the cable and connecting it to your house via a network interface device (imagine a cable box, but for fiber optic cable).
  • While the Co-op’s linemen and the first half of the Quantum team move to the next portion of the network, the second half of the Quantum team will install the router and set up your internet.

“As this process really gets going—as it gets ironed out—our goal is to be connecting 3 to 4 houses a day,” Drager says

Once the network is complete, the plan going forward is for Quantum Technologies to have a continued presence on the Island. This works for a number of reasons: because Quantum can be responsible for troubleshooting any problems with the network, as opposed to linemen from the Co-op; and because a suspected problem with the network is just as often a problem with a person’s computer, and as a company that also services computers, Quantum Technologies is better suited to take on those types of issues. “Additionally,” Cornell remarks, “if someone builds a house, or we need to expand the network for any reason, Quantum will have the expertise to help get that done.”

“And quite frankly, Quantum has really demonstrated their commitment to this project,” Cornell says. “After we had the initial conversations and I asked them to engage in a formal partnership with the Co-op, they bought a vacant business on the island, which will eventually become their storefront on the Island—for repair work and all of the various things that they do. It’s a pretty strong sign of commitment—to actually buy property in the community you’re working with.”

“Robert wanted someone local,” Drager adds, “which makes sense down the road because we’re in Door County if the Co-op needs us. We’ll be able to maintain this network—it’s a lifelong project.”

“If there was ever a project that Quantum has been a part of that I would describe as rewarding, it’s this project,” Drager says. “We haven’t even started connecting houses yet and the residents of Washington are already grateful. Everybody has been so excited and friendly. They even already know us by name!”