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Broadband Comes to Coffman Cove

Coffman Cove in southeastern Alaska is by no means the remotest place in the world, or even in Alaska--just one of the remotest. Yet as of June 6, this tiny, isolated village on the shores of Prince of Wales Island will officially join the global village. Broadband Internet access is coming to Coffman Cove.

To get to Coffman Cove, you fly to Prince Rupert in Canada, then take a ferry north to Ketchikan, Alaska. Another three-hour ferry ride from Ketchikan brings you to the island, and from there it's two and a half hours by mostly bad roads.

A long way to go for not much. The town has about 200 inhabitants in the summer, 140 in winter. There are several bed and breakfast hotels, a bunkhouse, two small stores and a gas station. That's it.

The year-round inhabitants are commercial fishermen, road construction workers or loggers. The latter are either out of work, because logging in the area ended in 2000, or go elsewhere for work. Summer brings the back-to-the-landers.

What's the appeal? Well, there's a pod of whales in the inland waterway on which the town nestles. There are eagle and bear in the woods. "It's just really, really beautiful," says City of Coffman Cove project manager Elaine Price. But it's more than that too.

"We say it's like living in the fifties," Price says. "Nobody locks their doors ever. The kids can go out and play all day and you don't have to worry. There's no crime at all. And whenever anyone gets hurt or sick, the whole community comes out."

That close-knit community spirit is part of the broadband story. Ed Buxtel, executive vice president of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based SkyFrames Inc., the satellite company that is helping bring broadband to Coffman Cove, calls it "democracy in action."

Earlier this year the municipal council voted 44 to five (with 11 abstaining) on a resolution to invest just under $30,000 in satellite terminal and wireless hotspot equipment which, with the remote assistance of SkyFrames, the city will use to operate its own wireless ISP.

"This community decided to be proactive and take control of its own destiny," is how Buxtel puts it.

SkyFrames is excited about Coffman Cove because there are another 320 small communities in Alaska, most of which want broadband access and can't get it many other ways. Buxtel says the state squandered over $10 million in federal funds earmarked for getting Alaska online--ending up with exactly three broadband-connected communities. "For that we could have connected 150 towns," he says.

So the rest of Alaska's small communities that were left out in the cold when the federal money ran out will be watching eagerly to see how Coffman Cove fares.

The town and its residents probably ought to be interested in whether other communities follow in their footsteps. The bigger a commitment SkyFrames makes to rural Alaska, the better the service Coffman Cove will receive. But for the locals, it's first and foremost about improving the quality of their lives.

Their first taste of the Internet came with a short-lived local ISP, Cove Connect, which used the town's microwave phone system to offer dial-up service. "It was too expensive and too slow," Price says. Subscribers paid $70 a month for connections that frequently dipped as low as 14.4 Kbps.

When Cove Connect disconnected, residents were stuck with calling long distance to the nearest AOL or WorldCom POP -- just as slow and even more expensive.

"When you access the Internet, you're always conscious of how long you're on there," Price says. "You always just go on, do what you have to do and get off. There's never an opportunity to search around or shop. You just don't do that."

But some residents had seen something better. A Massachusetts company hired locals to do medical transcription work online. They researched broadband solutions to connect them to their employer and eventually brought in service from satellite Internet company StarBand Communications Inc. of McLean, Va.

In the course of doing that research, they had come in contact with another service provider, later acquired by SkyFrames. When a core group of residents decided late last year to try and "do something for the community," as Price puts it, and bring in broadband service, they found an enthusiastic ally in Ed Buxtel.

The first attempt to get the council interested in the project in February ended with a request for more information and some proof the community was interested. At the next meeting in March, most of the town turned out and the motion carried with ease. The money would come from federal relief funds allocated to the community in the aftermath of the shut-down of the logging industry in 2000.

SkyFrames sold Coffman Cove a VSAT terminal, dish and gateway device. VSAT -- Very Small Aperture Terminal -- is a 20-year-old satellite technology that provides service at much lower cost than older technologies. The terminal will deliver a near-T-1 (1.55 Mbps) connection.

SkyFrames also sold the town a turn-key wireless hotspot system from Baldwin Park, Calif.-based Raylink Inc. Coffman Cove is small enough that a single access point will cover it all, with flat-panel rooftop transceivers at each subscriber's home connecting them.

Both the SkyFrames VSAT gear and the Raylink wireless system make it possible for much of the network monitoring and maintenance to be done remotely by SkyFrames from Costa Mesa. When the company comes in June to install the network it will also train the town's three part-time employees on how to operate the network and the business.

Thanks to proprietary SkyFrames technology that improves the efficiency of dividing up the bandwidth from the satellite link, the Coffman Cove WISP will be able to deliver subscribers an asynchronous connection of 128 Kbps upstream and up to 1 Mbps downstream. Price expects downstream throughput will top out at around 440 Kbps.

The price to subscribers had not been finally set at the time of writing, but will likely be $35 a month, Price says. The highest it might go is $45. Thirty-four residents have already signed up. Another 11 with computers probably will, and more are considering buying computers and hooking up.

The service won't just break the isolation of Coffman Cove. "We think it could have some substantial economic impact," Price says. "More and more jobs are available over the Internet now. The medical transcription work has been successful here. If people could work at home, that would encourage more of them to enter the workforce."

A few businesses may be able to exploit the Internet too. Boutique logging operations could market select lumber over the Internet. The community is also trying to raise funds to build and operate a fish processing plant. If that comes to pass, the company would retail product in small quantities on the Net.

"Ten fish to this reunion, five to that wedding -- that type of distribution," Price explains. "The Internet would be a major marketing tool. We're looking at selling to all of the continental United States, especially anywhere Alaska Airlines flies."

Of course, this is all in the future. Still, things are looking up in Coffman Cove. Soon it will be abandoning the diesel generators that provide its electricity as it hooks into a regional power grid. That will reduce power bills by a factor of three -- which might encourage residents to use computers more.

And broadband is coming.

Reprinted from ISP Planet