Carl Sagan wrote: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” He meant that as long as you're really talking about what an apple pie is made of, namely carbon, hydrogen and a few more elements. Similarly, when you see a headline in Ars Technica like "How a group of neighbors created their own Internet service," it should be first pointed out that no, they have not recreated the Internet from scratch. But on Orcas Island in Washington state, a group of volunteers has built their own distribution system when the local Internet service provider couldn’t. And founder Chris Sutton says “It wasn’t that hard.”

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Sutton is a software developer who telecommutes to Seattle, so for him, a solid Internet connection is crucial. He tells Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica:

The part of Orcas Island we’re on looks back toward the mainland. We can see these towers that are 10 miles away, and you realize, ‘hey, can’t we just get our own microwave link up here to us from down there, and then do this little hop from house to house to house via wireless stuff?’

Sure, just like that. They put a big microwave link on the top of their water tower, then mapped out the best locations for tree-mounted radios as relay points using Google Earth, on-ground surveys, and even a drone to test out signal strength at treetop altitude, because all the connections have to be line-of-sight. And then they have it: the Doe Bay Internet Users Association. Here’s the map:

radio mapThat doesn't look hard, installing all those radios. (Photo: DBIUA)

Even with all of the DIY work, it’s still not cheap. The network cost about $25,000 to build and they still have to pay for bandwidth. But it is less than many in sparsely populated areas pay.

More importantly, it demonstrates that people can band together and fix a situation instead of just waiting for big business to come around, which for remote islands with small populations, is a very long wait. Sutton concludes:

“I think so many other communities could do this themselves. There does require a little bit of technical expertise but it’s not something that people can’t learn. I think relying on corporate America to come save us all is just not going to happen, but if we all get together and share our resources, communities can do this themselves and be more resilient.”

That is perhaps the most important lesson.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

San Juan Islanders build Internet service from scratch
When people get together and share knowledge and resources, they can do wonders.