ON THE FAST LANE.....TO HIGH-SPEED INTERNET IN RURAL UNION COUNTY
By Bill Rautenstrauch
The key to entrepreneurship is simple: When a need exists, fill it.
And a big need locally is access to high-speed Internet, especially in Union County's smaller communities.
It's there for casual users, for business people, and for health care and education professionals looking to the Internet for solutions to community problems.
There's been progress in filling the need, though not as much as some would like.
Digital Subscriber Service (DSL) and T1 access are available from several providers.
One well-established local company, Eastern Oregon Net Inc., is beaming wireless service to La Grande-area residents from a tower atop the Sacajawea Annex.
Unicom has also entered the wireless arena, providing service to about 75 customers in Island City and La Grande. A third company involved in wireless technology is Byte Me Computers, providing wireless service from a tower on the hill above Grande Ronde Hospital.
But there's a long way to go. In the end, high-speed access remains spotty, especially in rural and semi-rural areas.
One man working to fill the gaps out in the country is John Cavin, a Cove computer specialist turned entrepreneur.
Cavin's Union County roots go back to the 1970s, when he worked as a pilot and flight instructor at the Union County Airport.
When the airport's fixed base operator went out of business, Cavin decided he wanted more education and a new career. He studied engineering at Oregon State University, earning his degree in 1982. He also holds a degree in aviation.
For many years, he worked at a federal research base in California, designing components for various projects including the space shuttle. Later, Cavin managed computer and networking systems for the government.
In 1999, he and his wife Christi decided to return to the Grande Ronde Valley. They settled in Cove.
"Christi's parents are fifth- generation ranchers here," Cavin said. "Every time we got a little time off, we came straight back to the Grande Ronde Valley. In 1999 we decided we wanted to stay," he said.
Cavin strayed from his technological leanings for a while, doing business as a stock trader. But as a career, it wasn't especially rewarding, he said.
"It wasn't like a real business. If I took a break, took the family on a vacation, there was no income," he said.
Finally, Cavin decided to go into business as a wireless Internet service provider.
"My daughter was always either on the telephone or the Internet. I got to thinking there had be another way, besides dial-up," he said.
"I like the technology and the computers. I saw a need and decided to try and fill it," he said.
The first project for newly -formed Oregon Wireless Access was to build a tower on Mill Hill in Cove.
The job wasn't without its challenges; getting electric power to the site was prohibitively expensive, so Cavin, with help from Blue Mountain Energy, designed a solar-powered antenna.
"It's very reliable, never been down. I'm really happy with it," Cavin said.
The tower, fed with a T1 Internet line, broadcasts data to antennas and receivers set up at customers' homes. It serves customers in Cove and surrounding areas.
"I'm above the break-even point with it," Cavin said.
Following the project's completion in March of this year, Cavin started looking for ways to expand his business.
His plan ultimately is to provide high speed wireless Internet service "foothill to foothill, north to south" in the Grande Ronde Valley.
He caught a break earlier this year when he met Paul Porter of Pendleton Grain Growers' local outlet.
PGG owns a 100-foot tall grain elevator in Alicel, adjacent to the old Peacock Lumber Company.
Cavin knew the elevator to be the perfect location for an antenna beaming a signal to customers along the valley's western foothills. He asked Porter if the company might be willing to allow an antenna to be built.
"Paul and PGG turned out to be very business-friendly. After I told them what I wanted to do, they said, What can we do to make this work?' "
A trade in which PGG allowed Cavin to use the elevator in return for services was worked out.
"They're able to update their grain inventory data base in real time. It's something that wasn't feasible for them before," Cavin said.
Early in July, Cavin, assisted by a few friends and relatives, went to work installing the antenna. It was not an easy task.
"There's no automated way up to the roof. We carried a lot of tools and equipment up a ladder or took it up on the on the weight-assisted man lift. Some stuff we hoisted by rope up over the edge," Cavin said.
Cavin added that Sierra Crane of Island City was a key player in the project.
"They hoisted the antenna, for less money than they'd normally charge. The only thing was, I had to meet their schedule," he said.
The tower at Alicel is electric powered and equipped with a microwave link.
The facility cost more than $10,000 to build, Cavin said. He judges it to be almost 100 percent reliable.
"We had a situation where a PGG worker accidentally threw a switch, but that's the only time it's been down," he said.
As for the future, Cavin said he would like to expand his business operations to other small communities. When financing becomes available, he wants to wants to build an antenna to serve customers in Island City.
He said he made some valuable contacts at the Eastern Oregon Telecommunications Conference, held recently at the Blue Mountain Conference Center.
"I talked with people from Elgin," he said. "They were interested in what I'm doing."
Cavin said his customers "run a gamut" from farmers and ranchers and casual Internet users, to "lone eagle" type business people who rely on high speed Internet for their livelihoods.
"Some of them do unusual things," he said. "There's one who makes robotic submarines, and another who builds gaming software programs for an international clientele," he said.
Those customers aren't making him rich, but he is confident his company will survive.
"This isn't a cash cow or a golden goose, but I know the money's going to come back to me," he said.