Tightening restrictions on logging in Alaska's Tongass Forest caused the area's timber companies to close up shop, leaving Coffman Cove, Alaska -- a small community situated on a sparsely populated island -- in dire economic straits.
"When the logging ended in 2000, there was no more employment here," said Elaine Price, project manager for the recent satellite Internet installation. "This is going to help us out a lot."
Since then, the town tried to expand its economic options, but with Internet access limited to long-distance dial-up, its isolation kept many options out of reach. To remedy the situation, the town implemented a broadband satellite solution to connect itself to the rest of the world.
Creating an ISP
Some residents suggested the town offer Internet service. After looking into some possible solutions, Coffman Cove put the idea to a vote at a city council meeting.
"There was overwhelming support for the city to offer Internet access to the community members," said Price, adding that the city adopted an ordinance to create a municipal ISP.
As officials began exploring the possibilities, they realized a T1 line was not the most suitable option for such a small community. In a town of only 135 to 200 people, depending on the season -- and less than 35 people initially signed up -- the $2,000 monthly fee required for a T1 line was too expensive.
SkyFrames offered Coffman Cove a solution that gave the entire town access to a broadband satellite connection. Using a Wi-Fi network, residents wirelessly connect to a VSAT satellite, which transmits and receives signals from SkyFrames' hub in Oceanside, Calif., where the connection is made to the Internet.
The ISP operates like a utility. Users pay $150 to sign up and $35 per month, and the city maintains and retains ownership of the equipment. Pricing may be adjusted once total costs are assessed, though Price said the town does not expect to recover installation costs. The city paid for the installation with federal money given to logging communities as the area's timber industry withered.
"That was meant for economic development, and we think we've met that goal," Price said.
SkyFrames installed the satellite and network infrastructure for the town and has done initial home installations. The company has given the town ongoing support and training, so future installations can be done by town employees and administered by the city.
"It's not worth it for them to come all the way up here just to keep doing an installation here and an installation there," she said. "So that was part of the package."
Installing the network in southeast Alaska presented some challenges. The town's remoteness slowed the project at times, said Edward Bukstel, executive vice president of SkyFrames. "Logistical planning is a must, especially considering the nearest hardware store is 150 miles away."
Bringing the needed equipment to such a remote community was a challenge as well. "Next-day delivery doesn't exist in some places in Alaska," Bukstel said, adding that some equipment was brought in by barge and floatplane. "Prior to arriving at Coffman Cove for the installation, we checked to make sure all the equipment had arrived. We discovered that the equipment was signed for, but was dispersed at various locations on Prince of Wales Island."
Bukstel said for their next installation on the island, in Craig, they partnered with a technology company based in Ketchikan, Alaska, which will provide a local operation base for gathering the equipment.
The Alaskan landscape also presented some challenges, according to Price.
"They had no idea what they were getting into. We tried to explain to them that we had trees, but they thought we had fluffy little trees," she said. "We have