Disconnected: A new broadband provider in Clatskanie wants internet decentralized
This is part two of a two-part series on broadband in Columbia County. Read part one here.
In Clatskanie, a growing internet service provider is offering a local alternative to spotty broadband access in a rural community.
Operating as a cooperative, the Clatskanie program runs using Althea, a software that allows routers to pay each other for internet access, rather than paying a centralized company.
The Clatskanie co-op leases underground fiber owned by NoaNet, a fiber network operator formed in 2000 by public utility districts in Washington. From where the fiber ends, a gateway in the center of town connects with relay nodes and antennas to extend the internet connection into homes and businesses like Clatskanie Floral or Subway.
A home using Althea would have an antenna aimed closer to the source but could add another antenna to pass the signal along to neighbors who want to connect. When a user adds an antenna to connect others, they receive a portion of profits. A few users receive pennies for each gigabyte of data that passes through their antenna, which can end up paying for their own usage.
"The key distinction between us and something like Comcast, or Frontier, or any of the other internet service providers, is that instead of having large towers and lots of centrally owned infrastructure and cables, we are able to use people's homes and businesses to reroute signal to their neighbors, bandwidth to their neighbors," explained Althea co-founder Deborah Simpier, who also runs the Clatskanie network.
"That's kind of what decentralization means to people, it just means that you're going to be paying your neighbors for your internet, instead of paying a big company," Simpier said.
To Simpier, the cooperative model "shifts the focus between 'how much profit can we extract from the network?' to 'how many people can we serve? How can this best serve our community?'"
Clatskanie became Althea's first test network in 2018. There were just a handful of residents "at the very beginning when the software was just rolling out. We were just figuring things out, and it was a pretty bumpy ride," Simpier said.
The network officially started early this year and now has 50 subscribers. A representative for Althea said Clatskanie users are experiencing speeds of 50 to 60 megabits per second, which is double the minimum speed considered broadband by the Federal Communications Commission.
While most internet service providers charge more for faster speed tiers, Althea's pricing is based on use.
"It's more like getting your water bill," Simpier explained.
A standard membership fee applies, which pays for technical support. Most people aren't aware of how much data they use on their home internet each month, which meant some were initially hesitant. Users pay with a cryptocurrency called Ethereum, which they load on to their account before using the internet.
"We talk a lot about the infrastructure, but I'd like for us to talk about cost," Simpier said after reviewing a study conducted for Columbia County that identified cost as a major barrier to broadband access. "If you can't afford the access, then it isn't really access."
A survey conducted as part of that study found that many residents in Columbia County had limited options for internet service providers, forcing them to accept high prices or go without internet.
The no-contract, pay-as-you-go aspect makes Althea more accessible to people who lack stable income, who can use the internet when they can afford it, rather than getting stuck in a contract.
Simpier, a long-time net neutrality activist, has owned a computer shop in Clatskanie since 2010.
"I really believe that people have certain rights on the internet, that your data shouldn't be throttled or censored, but that the internet should be free and open, and I had spent many years trying to fight (for) that from a legislative standpoint," Simpier said.
"It was fairly apparent to me that we were fighting a losing battle — although one that we should still continue to fight," she said.
Simpier started looking into how to address internet access issues outside of legislation.
"If we own the internet, in a decentralized way, if our internet service providers are locally run and governed, that's where we can exert a democracy," she said.
Simpier teamed up with Jehan Tremback and Justin Kilpatrick, who were already working on Althea.
Funding rural connections
Federal funding has aided broadband expansions, particularly in rural areas, but some say the funding has been used inefficiently.
In August, the FCC authorized $4.9 billion to support rural broadband over the next 10 years. Of that, $67.6 million is planned for Oregon to expand access in 4,689 homes, businesses or other locations. That is equal to $14,425 per location. The funding can also go toward maintaining or expanding existing broadband services, meaning far fewer than 4,689 locations may see new broadband service.
In 2010, Cascade Networks, a high-speed network and data services provider based in Longview, Washington, was awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Broadband Initiative Program. The provider received more than $3 million in grants and loans to build out a network to serve more than 1,500 homes and businesses in rural Clatskanie. In 2017, Cascade Networks was acquired by Wave, a broadband provider along the West Coast.
FCC data doesn't show what impact the funding to Cascade has had yet.
Earlier this month, Althea launched its third Oregon network in North Plains.
Few would assume rural Clatskanie, a small, aging timber town, would be receptive to new technologies like Althea's system, Simpier said, but added that the area's residents have embraced it.
"I think people just don't ask us. Perhaps we just haven't been given the choice before," Simpier said. "Would you like to have more control over your internet? Would you like to have a vote in how things are run? Would you like to not have your content censored? Would you like your internet access to be better? I think if we were actually asked those things, of course we're going to say yes. And I think that's the sort of reception that we're seeing in Clatskanie."
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