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Islanders staying connected beyond bandwidth

A nearly $7 million project is underway to connect more people across Washington Island with high-speed Internet.
The 57 students attending Washington Island School are able utilize high-speed Internet, thanks to an ongoing project to improve the community's Internet connection.
Posted at 4:00 AM, Feb 07, 2024

WASHINGTON ISLAND (NBC 26) — Students at Washington Island School had been battling a bad Internet connection for years, but thanks to a newer project, it's just as strong as the community's close-knit connection with each other.

Students and educators have been able to collectively breathe a sigh of relief, because it's made learning so much easier.

"So, it probably took like a whole night to just get a few assignments done," said Washington Island Sophomore Rita Valentincic.

"Our Internet was extremely unreliable, and a lot of times it would go out, and there was a certain period when it went out for a week," said Washington Island Sophomore Ashlynn DeJardin.

Both students say despite the years of spotty service, they feel a stronger connection with classmates and community members on the 35-square-mile Island that goes beyond broadband and bandwidth.

"You know everyone in school. You know their first name, last name, their parents, and their relatives. You know everything about them, and that's really different from off-island where there's someone in your same grade, and you've never even heard of them," Valentincic said.

"I love knowing all my classmates like siblings, and I enjoy being as close as I am with everybody else in the community, because it just makes it that much more safe, and you don't have to be as guarded with yourself as you would anywhere else," DeJardrin said.

We felt the connection too!

While scrolling through social media, snapping photos and checking our phones' connection on the 30-minute ferry ride through Death's Door, the captain invited us inside the wheelhouse to offer a glimpse of island life.

It was a welcome break from social media and a moment to enjoy real-life social interaction.

Valentincic says despite the improved Internet connection, most islanders are communicating with each other the same friendly way.

"I think it's perfect! I love everyone that is in my school. So, that's the biggest misconception, that there's not that many people here. It must be boring every single day. I love being able to spend time with my classmates every single day. They're like my family now," Valentincic said.

Washington Island School Administrator Tim Verboomen says that family-like connection and improved Internet connection brings this community even closer.

"Everybody chips in. Everybody does what they have to do. I'm just one more person, doing what has to be done," Verboomen said.

Verboomen said working through the spotty service during the pandemic was a real struggle, but he believes it made everyone stronger.

He says having high-speed Internet that actually lives up to its name allows students on Washington Island to have the same opportunities as anywhere else.

"Now we know pretty reliably that our students are able to log in, get their work done, study, learn, or prepare for the ACT - whatever they want to do," Verboomen said.

The school was one of the first spots across the community to get an improved Internet connection, and that included the fire department and ferry line.

Leaders say the goal is to get even more people connected as this project continues.