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Optical/IP

How one stranded Oregon community built its own wireless Internet network

Oregon's Holiday Farm Fire left very little behind as it tore through the McKenzie River Valley east of Eugene in the fall of 2020. Cell service was eliminated as 27 miles of fiber were destroyed along with homes and businesses, leaving roughly 800 people without a way to communicate with the outside world. But the communities scattered across the valley quickly came together to create their own makeshift network using point-to-multipoint wireless. For some of them, the new DIY Internet service is delivering faster speeds than they had before.

The volunteer group that built the network calls itself Oregon Internet Response. It's led by Geoff Turner, a central Oregon native who got his start doing IT work for a church and launched his first company at age 14. Today Turner is based in Portland as CEO of Elevate Technology Group, an IT services company that was preparing to build a fixed wireless hybrid fiber network to facilitate remote work in other parts of Oregon when the forest fire hit the valley. Elevate had purchased radio equipment from Cambium Networks, and Turner realized that he could use it to help McKenzie River Valley residents. Using abandoned towers, excess bandwidth, point-to-point radios, donated Wi-Fi access points and volunteer labor, Turner and his team have now restored Internet service to the McKenzie River Valley by creating a series of wireless Internet connections that crosses the Cascade Mountain Range.

The McKenzie River winds east from Eugene, Oregon, creating a deep valley. Near the middle of the valley sits the area hit hardest by the fire, about 50 miles east of Eugene and about 80 miles west of Bend, Oregon. A cell site on nearby Mount Hagan supplied the area’s primary Internet connection, but it was destroyed by the fire. The valley is too deep to offer visibility of more than one satellite, and much of the bandwidth from that one satellite was being used for first responders who were dealing with the ongoing fire.

Securing sites

The team needed to find new tower sites, but they had zero budget. Turner reached out to Hoodoo, a ski resort about 30 miles north of the impacted area. The resort agreed to give the volunteers access to a monopole that was part of an abandoned ski lift. Once they got to the site, Turner and his team learned that an ISP called Bend Broadband already had a 32-mile long 11 GHz wireless backhaul link from Hoodoo to a tower on its headquarters in the city of Bend. The link was shared among the mobile operators serving the area, but had excess capacity. Bend agreed to hand off the extra capacity to Oregon Internet Response, creating the backhaul for the new network.

Turner and his team had backhaul from Bend, donated equipment from several companies, and free labor from skilled volunteers, but none of this could be put to work without cell sites. The goal was to find a site from which they could distribute the signal, but they knew they would need to create several network "hops" from Hoodoo in order to reach a site close enough to the communities in need of a connection. The team reached out to Eugene Water and Power, which owned a site called the Carmen Smith Tower. The utility had always relied on wireless Internet, so now its dam and power generation facility were offline. Oregon Internet Response installed a point-to-point link from Hoodoo to the Carmen Smith Tower. “Our first thing we did was hand off Internet access when we got there, so that the dam operations could come back online,” said Turner.

Then the team asked the utility for access to the Belknap Bluff Tower, which the volunteers discovered about seven miles away from Carmen Smith. “We found it on Google Earth, in the middle of a forest on the side of a cliff," Turner said. The team installed a point-to-point link from Carmen Smith Tower to Belknap Bluff Tower. The trees near the Belknap Bluff Tower were more than 100 feet tall, blocking signals, so this could not be the primary distribution site. But from this site they were able to transmit to client radios in the nearby community of Belknap Hot Springs, which had turned its conference center into a remote learning center for students, but had no Internet access.

From Belknap Bluff Tower the team also wanted to create a link to the Forest Ranger Station since the Forest Service was trying to battle the ongoing fires without Internet service. But there were no towers near the station. Luckily, a Forest Service ranger showed up with a creative solution: He proposed sending a climber up a tree to create a natural tower.

The climber cleared a space in the tree roughly 100 feet up, and the volunteers created a daisy chain to hoist a Cambium radio up to her, which she then attached to the side of the tree. The climber also connected the nearby Forest Service building to the network, bringing the forest rangers and fire command back online.

"They only had copper prior, so the max bandwidth this facility has ever had is 3Mbit/s," Turner said. "We're now delivering just under 200Mbit/s of bandwidth."

Crossing the mountain range

While the volunteers were working, Turner spied a hill that looked like a promising place for the main distribution site. "The next weekend we hiked up to the top of it and we found where there's an old lookout up there," he remembers. It was a Forest Service lookout that had been burned by arsonists 50 years ago. The Forest Service agreed to grant access to the lookout, and even cleared a path through the trees to help the volunteers get there. The team carried as much gear as it could to the top of the hill, and then enlisted local high school basketball players to haul up the remaining equipment necessary to light up the makeshift tower. According to Turner, this is the first time a network has crossed the mountain range instead of bringing in service from the end of the valley.

The new site distributed signal to several more places in the valley using Cambium radios and donated Wi-Fi access points. The wireless network now supports public Wi-Fi in several parking lots, including that of the popular Takoda's Restaurant. Cars started filling the lot just minutes after the Wi-Fi hotspots were turned on, and Turner approached one woman who was sobbing uncontrollably. She told him she was overcome with emotion after talking with her family for the first time in six weeks.

In addition to parking lots, Oregon Internet Response has brought connectivity to a medical facility, a post office and an outdoor school. The school is at the site of an armory where a million rounds of ammunition exploded during the fire, caught on video by a team of firefighters who were trapped by the blaze for three days along with an 81-year-old woman whom they had been rescuing when the fire cut off their escape. The fire destroyed the armory and a nearby church, creating a large open area that community leaders decided to use for heated tents in which students could attend remote classes. The volunteers found an abandoned utility pole nearby, mounted their radios, and remote school was in session. The tents are heated by generators, powered in part by solar panels that Turner and his team installed.

Looking ahead

Now that the Hoodoo Ski Resort is linked to the valley, cellular carriers are looking at increasing their use of the Bend Broadband link that connects Bend to Hoodoo. Thus, Oregon Internet Response is working to build its own 11 GHz backhaul link into Bend, because it will no longer be able to use the excess capacity on the existing wireless backhaul link.

Oregon Internet Response is also planning to work with Link Oregon, a non-profit that builds networks for the education sector. Turner says his team likes the idea of letting another group handle logistics. "We don't want to do all the paperwork," he said. "We are a ton of people who want to hit the ground and do something."

— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her @mardegrasse

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