UGAMI works with local ISP to upgrade Sapelo Island broadband

The UGA Marine Institute (UGAMI) is a world-renowned field destination that supports research and education in coastal ecosystems. However, the remote location on Sapelo Island has proven to be a challenge at times, especially when it comes to internet broadband.

Sapelo Island is connected to the internet via a single tower that exchanges data with the mainland about 9 miles away. Until recently, the radios on this tower were only rated for 300 megabits per second (Mbps) worth of data, and only 100 of those were dedicated to UGAMI — not nearly enough to handle the amount of research being conducted there. This led to bottlenecks and frequent service interruptions.

That all changed in August with the installation of modern broadband technology that increased the island’s total bandwidth capacity to 2,400 Mbps, an eight-fold improvement. This not only changed internet connectivity on the island, but also improved UGAMI’s ability to carry out its important work without interruption.

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“With the old system, the UGAMI network was often saturated, involving everything from office to data-intensive research to teaching and video conferencing,” said Merryl Alber, director of UGAMI and professor in UGA’s Department of Marine Sciences. “The boost has now mitigated that and gives us room to grow.”

This was confirmed by Jacob Shalack, UGAMI’s Deputy Operations Manager. “Uploading research files has been a nightmare,” he said, “and being able to use the new capacity makes it much more efficient.”

Shalack has worked on Sapelo Island for 15 years. One of the biggest changes, he said, will affect the drone images that researchers on the island use to document environmental patterns. Such detailed images often result in huge files that used to take two hours or more to upload, but new technology has cut that down to an average of 12 minutes.

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The upgrade is also a promising development for Sapelo Island’s private community, which shares its broadband connection with UGAMI staff.

“Before the upgrade, the bandwidth available across the island of Sapelo was equivalent to that of two or three average residential broadband accounts,” Alber said. “This was a restriction for residents, businesses and government agencies on the island.”

The existing microwave radios were installed in 2012 as part of a partnership between UGAMI and Darien Telephone Company, the network provider for the island of Sapelo. The two entities worked together again to bring newer technology to the island.

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“The Darien Telephone Company was pleased to have the opportunity to work with UGAMI to make the necessary updates to the microwave that delivers mainland broadband to Sapelo Island,” said Judy Dodd, Darien Telephone Company’s marketing manager. “This upgrade will provide increased bandwidth to meet the island’s growing demand for broadband.”

Both the UGA and the Darien Telephone Company contributed to the new system, with the UGA portion of the funding provided by the Office of Research. Dodd also acknowledged the efforts Alber made to make this happen.

“[She] was instrumental in securing funding and was the driving force behind the project,” said Dodd.

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