Internet has officially been restored to Mckenzie Bridge, Blue River, and Rainbow, Oregon, a community devastated by the recent Holiday Farm WildFire which swept across Central Oregon.
“None of this would have worked without the upstream and downstream bandwidth BendBroadband provided,” said Geoff Turner, CEO of Elevate Technologies and volunteer. “You guys don’t even serve them, and there was no financial gain—just giving back to the community because it was the right thing to do.”
Bendbroadband made available 500MB on an existing link from the Bend headend to the Hoodoo shelter at the crest of the Cascade Mountains.
Permanent restoration of phone and internet services will still likely take months, but residents and businesses didn’t have time to wait. The temporary solution was developed in association with the Oregon Incident Response (OIR) team, under the direction of FEMA. Volunteers, made up from telecom and broadband stakeholders in Central Oregon, worked tirelessly through nights and weekends to find a way to bring broadband back to the communities.
Blue River had no connection once the fires destroyed CenturyLink’s central office and the 27 miles of fiber that were feeding the communities. After the fires subsided, FEMA arrived and setup a satellite solution, providing only 12MB of connection. “It was a drive through setup, where people could pullup and check their email, and that was about it,” said Geoff.
The schools, the local clinic, grocery stores, and gas stations were all without a connection. Because card readers were offline, residents had to use cash for any transactions. “Just to get gas, people were driving all the way to Sisters,” said Geoff. “We knew we had to find a way to help.”
Geoff and the rest of the volunteer team spent time looking at Google Maps to find towers they could connect to, convinced they could find a connection path into the communities.
After hours of discussion, dead ends, and long hikes, the group had an idea. From the top of nearby Belknap Springs, they could see the Eugene Water & Electric Board Carmen-Smith Hydroelectric facility. From Carmen-Smith, they could see Hoodoo Ski Mountain. “Guess what we could see from the top of Hoodoo?” Geoff said. “BendBroadband’s tower.”
That’s when the group reached out to Wade Holmes, director – Data Architecture. “BendBroadband has a long history of wireless links to connect Central Oregon and the Willamette Valley,” said Wade. “In fact, in 1976, almost the exact same path over Hoodoo was used to receive television signals from Eugene and Portland in order to serve the Central Oregon market.”
“When Eric Rosenberry and members of the OIR first reached out, it was natural that we could help,” said Wade. “With the approval of our executive team, staff got to work.”
“Initially, we considered placing new equipment at the Bend headend site, but with the quick action of TDS’ operational teams, we utilized capacity that could shorten the recovery time for essential commerce and public services in the restoration sites,” said Wade.
The final route would be from BendBroadband’s tower, to Hoodoo Ski Area, then to the Carmen-Smith tower, to Belknap, and then finally to the top of Castle Rock Dam and down into town.
On the top of Hoodoo, the group dug a trench by hand and put conduit in. From there, they ran conduit out of a box to the top of an old ski lift.
Once the connection from Hoodoo to the top of the Carmen-Smith Dam was made, they brought it to Belknap Springs. But the group made a stop along the way: the Mckenzie River Forest Ranger Station.
“We spoke to the Forest Service and said ‘hey, we have bandwidth 130 feet above you, but we can’t reach it ourselves,'” said Geoff.
The Forest Service brought in their climbing team and mounted a dish 100 feet up in a tall tree, pointing directly at the connection above.
That night, the rangers who lived at the station were able to make their first video call from the site. “They were absolutely thrilled,” said Geoff.
As for the last stop, the Castle Rock Dam proved to be the most difficult. The trail up to it was so steep, not even ATVs could make the climb. “The first night, a team carried telecom boxes, solar panels, and stashed it all up there,” said Geoff. The group went up the next day and realized there were trees in the way of making the last connection down into town.
“So, we called the forest service up again,” said Geoff. “They helped provide line of sight and felled the specific trees we needed to make it work, and it was just an incredible thing to see.”
Once it was clear, after another tough climb, through high winds, and 40-degree weather, they built an entire solar array up at Castle Rock to keep it working.
To make the solution complete, the owner of IOIO Box donated five Wi-Fi boxes to be stationed in town, and this provided the communities with Wi-Fi immediately.
Last week, the school got back online, the main restaurant in town where all the fire crews are eating, Dakotas, has a 60×60 megabit connection, and businesses’ card readers are now working.
“It’s literally the lifeline to the community, and it would not have been possible without BendBroadband,” said Geoff.
“I can’t thank our Operations team enough, they literally spun on a dime to activate service in this time of community need,” said Wade. “Scott Ladd, Michael Turner, Shawn Waight, Greg Conner, and many others ensured the communities of Blue River, McKenzie Bridge and Rainbow would have access to critical communications, payment processing and telemedicine before the week was half over.”
“It is a great honor to be part of emergency recovery,” said Wade. “Capacity that we had idle as a provider in one of the denser Oregon communities was able to change the lives of those in isolated communities where access to broadband is an extreme sport.