Whidbey Tel planning service upgrades

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By Meg Olson

Whidbey Telecom is offering a phone package to eliminate long-distance charges calling the county, working to improve dependability and Internet speeds, and looking at whether their new television service would work for the Point.

“Over the last year we’ve been working on improving our network connectivity,” chief operating officer Bruce Russell told members of the Point Roberts Taxpayers’ Association at their May 4 meeting. To avoid service disruptions that happened after a submarine fiber optic cable was damaged last year and signals were coming to the Point by microwave, he said they had been working with Bell Canada to add backup routes for signals to travel by fiber optic.

Taxpayers’ association president Mark Robbins said the group had invited representatives from Whidbey Telecom as part of their focus on economic development, and dependable high-speed internet is critical. “We have a lot of self-employed people in Point Roberts who depend heavily on broadband,” he said.

Improved service will depend on “pushing fiber deeper into the network and we’re doing that,” said Chris Burns, senior technology director. The company is studying where they can most effectively impact more people by extending their fiber optic network from the company offices on Johnson Road, where it now terminates. Signals are carried from there to homes in copper wires, to “cabinets” in satellite locations.

“There are a couple of places we could add equipment that would make internet speeds faster,” Burns said.

Brent Dixon from the local Whidbey Telecom office also encouraged all customers with questions about their service quality to call. “We can get to the bottom of it,” he said.

Robbins also asked if local calling could be extended. “We have a horrible local calling area,” he said. “Economically and socially we’re part of the lower mainland. Governmentally, we’re part of Whatcom County. Our schools are in Blaine. None of it is a local call,” he said.

Russell said a new product called “premium choice” is now available that for $29.95 a month would include local and long distance to the U.S., including Puerto Rico, Hawaii and Canada. “I know long distance is a big concern for this community,” he said. “We’re taking down the borders here. Here’s one rate that covers all of that.” Currently a basic residential landline is $16 with long distance charges on top of that.

“There are people who already don’t have a phone here because they can’t afford it,” Jennifer Urquhart said, and asked if Whidbey Telecom offered assistance. Russell referred her to the national Lifeline program for low income consumers. Information about the program is at fcc.gov/lifeline.

Audience members wanted to know if the new WhidbeyTV service, available on Whidbey Island, would be coming to Point Roberts. “Part of the critical path is to improve the distribution system,” Russell said, by continuing to expand the fiber optic network. “If we had more subscribers we could add more cabinets.” He added if they had a better sense of how many potential WhidbeyTV customers they would have, they could have a better idea of whether or not it would be feasible.

Steve Wolff suggested that with Delta Cable plans to switch their Canadian customers to a digital service but keep the Point analog, or even discontinue service here, many Delta Cable subscribers might consider a switch.

Delta Cable representative Tannis Goodfellow confirmed they are actively switching their Delta customers to digital service, providing higher definition and on-demand programming, but that those improvements are not planned for the Point. However, “There are no plans to limit or eliminate service from what we currently provide,” she said. “We are investing in maintaining service at its current level and we are always looking at our service levels.”

WhidbeyTV provides a service similar to what Delta Cable offers in Delta, with high definition and on-demand programming.

Audience members with the Coalition to Stop the Towers asked if Whidbey Telecom could help in their efforts to prevent an AM radio tower farm from being built on the Point. “It’s your right to complain as it will affect you and your customers [through interference],” Wolff said.

“We haven’t been very visible about our efforts but there’s been a lot of behind the scenes work,” Russell said. “We’ve been figuring out how to best combat the towers,” working with legal counsel in Washington D.C.

Burns said the signal from the tower would be picked up by any copper wiring, such as is what’s used to get signals from fiber optic hubs to homes. “We can mitigate the interference but it leads to performance degradation,” he said. “The biggest sources of interference will come from your home wiring.”

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