Silicon Insider: Broadband Goes Small Town

Broadband has come to Bandon-by-the-Sea.

Ever since I started this column I've tracked the impact of the technology revolution on the little town of Bandon on the southwestern coast of Oregon.

Even if you don't recognize the name, you've likely seen Bandon. Its two most celebrated landmarks are a cute little lighthouse with an attached octagon shaped keeper's house (the subject of endless postcards and needlepoint designs) and the rock monoliths on Bandon Beach, which serve as a backdrop for window company ads and Jeep commercials. The latter, in fact, were filmed in what is legally (since beach properties extend to the high tide line) my backyard.

Bandon now has a third landmark, one that has suddenly made this little former fishing-logging town famous to golfers around the world: a collection of spectacular Scottish links-style golf courses just a couple miles north of us called Bandon Dunes, Pacific Dunes and Pacific Trails. The first two are already rated among the best on earth, as Pacific Trails likely will be any day now, and there are rumors that a fourth course is in the works a few miles to the south. This will likely put Bandon at the epicenter of the greatest golfing area on the planet, exceeding even my Silicon Valley neighbor, Pebble Beach/Carmel.

Bandon Edges Toward Big Time

The first time I wrote about Bandon in this column, none of this had yet occurred. Indeed, Bandon at the time was merely a tiny town 25 miles south of Coos Bay, living on a dying timber industry, a fading fishing industry, and a small, cyclical tourist trade. It had a charming Old Town center -- essentially what was left after the rest burned up in the 1930s -- where you could sit at a counter next to some tired fisherman and get a bowl of superb clam chowder for a couple of bucks. Jobs were slim, houses were jaw-droppingly cheap, and most young people graduated from high school and never came back. In the early evenings you could walk down a two-mile stretch of empty beach and watch the most amazing sunsets all by yourself.

In other words, Bandon was a kind of sanctuary from the growing insanity that was building in Silicon Valley during the run up to the dot-com bubble. You had to drive to Coos Bay just to buy a computer, and an unpredictable phone system played havoc with dial-up modems. For a long time, you couldn't even use your cell phone here; and when analog cellular did arrive, the microwave antenna seemed to rotate away every two minutes. Those were the days when I was running Forbes ASAP magazine, and one conversation with my assistant once took 11 phone calls.

But even then Bandon was changing. When I first visited here as a boy, 40 years ago, the town might have been on another planet. By the time my wife and I drove up here for our honeymoon, they were just installing the first ATM and the second traffic light in town.

By the mid-1990s, when we were bringing our young sons up here to escape the chaos of the valley, major changes were already under way. The first cohort of aging Californians -- the vanguard of the baby boomers -- had realized they could put the home they bought in Palo Alto or Santa Monica for $35,000 on the market, sell it for $850,000, and retire in splendor on the Oregon Riviera (70 degree days in October, endless rain in January) in a $250,000 mini mansion on the beach.

There was still nobody on the beach most days, but our house was increasingly no longer alone. Every few months construction began on a new house along the cliff to our north or south. Our house, which used to look so isolated on the pristine coastline that it drew angry looks from passing locals, was now almost invisible among the growing host of oversize houses straining for the maximum view.

But even as late as the end of the century you could still buy a beachfront lot for $100,000 (a subject of great amusement to locals) or a house in town for less than that, and the infrastructure issues causing the most local voter debate were the rebuilding of the sewage treatment plant and new bleachers for the Bandon Tigers high school football games.

Dot-commers Escape the Cities and Suburbs

But all of that changed with the end of the millennium, the dot-com bust and the recession sparked by 9/11. Suddenly the main cohort of baby boomers, especially in California but all over the West, many of them laid-off after 30 years of hard work, concluded that now was the time to retire early, take the immense equity out of their homes while real estate values were astronomical, and escape from the pressure, the madness and the dangers of the cities and burbs. Some chose Reno or Las Vegas, others the California wine country or Sierra foothills, still others the Mendocino coast. But a surprising number chose the southern Oregon coast, especially Bandon.

At the same time, the owner of a greeting card company in Chicago decided to build a golf course to match the experience of the legendary Scottish courses like St. Andrews. He chose a stretch of sea grass, sand and gorse just across the Coquille River and up the coast from Bandon, and called the course Bandon Dunes. I played it once, just before it opened, but I'm not a golfer, so though I was impressed I had no inkling that I was standing on what would soon be the most coveted new course in the world.

It wasn't long before Michael Jordan's jet could be seen landing at the Coos Bay/North Bend airport and Jon Bon Jovi was spotted shopping in Old Town Bandon before the price of beachfront houses jumped to its current $1.5 million-plus. The houses that used to seem such a bargain compared with Silicon Valley's now command valley prices. Even the homes across the street from the beach now sell for more than $700,000; and these days you can stand on the (still almost empty) beach and look up at the cliffs and see a single unbroken line of giant houses in a kind of Malibu Del Norte.

Even in town, where you could once pick up a three-bedroom home on a quarter acre for the price of a Palo Alto garage, one is hard pressed to find a house listed for less than $200,000. Not surprisingly, many of the native Bandonites I met 20 years ago -- the ones who laughed so hard at the real estate boom they forgot to take part in it -- have either moved away, or, if they've stayed to work in town, headed up into the nearby hills where home prices remain Oregonesque. But though a few fishermen remain -- the lights of their boats are like low stars on the horizon at night -- most of the other working men, especially the loggers, are now gone. Except for the cranberry farmers, toiling in their carmine bogs, most everybody else in town now works in the service industry, catering to the tourists and retirees.

And the transformation of Bandon has just begun. In the last few years numerous acres of gorse have been cleared for new McMansion developments -- the chief selling point these days being a tiny "ocean view" through the trees. The latest news is that the leading local developer has obtained permission from the city fathers to build more than 300 new homes -- probably a 20 percent increase in the town's residential inventory -- in a meadow a quarter mile inland from the beach. Rumored price per home? Nearly 300 grand, more than houses on beach cost just a decade ago.

Meanwhile, every flight of the little puddle jumper prop plane down from Portland is filled to capacity with golfers. And the LPGA is coming to town soon -- a harbinger of giant tournaments to come. There are already predictions that it won't be long before every hotel room and house rental for 50 miles will be filled, several times each year, with thousands of golf fans.

Technology Arrives, Detachment Ends

Yet through all these changes, two vital factors have managed to keep Bandon what it was: a sanctuary from the pace of the outside world. One was the beach, which the wind and rain conspired to keep perpetually empty; and the other was Bandon's technological isolation. Cable TV may have come to town a few years back, then digital cable, but as long as you had to take your FedEx package to the regional airport, your modem dial-up disconnected half the time and your analog cell phone calls were cut off after two minutes, you could still feel detached and secure from the predations of the big crazy world out there beyond the hills and the waves.

But in the last year, two Fed Ex/UPS shipping places have opened in town. And if the cellular system remains frustratingly analog, lately it seems that you can talk forever (and rack up astounding roaming charges in the process). There's even free Wi-Fi at the local coffee joint.

But the real shocker came this week, when I brought the family up for spring break. It seemed as if construction was under way on every street in town. Roads were blocked by trucks, flag men held signs warning me to slow down, and excavating equipment chewed into wet, green grass.

Then I looked closely: It was the local cable company, unspooling miles of optical fiber. Broadband has come to Bandon. From now on, I'll be able to sit at my laptop at the beach and tap in to the Internet -- and be in the thick of the outside world -- as quickly and as easily in Bandon, Oregon, as I can in Sunnyvale, California.

And that is a truly terrifying thought. For 20 years, Bandon has been my escape. But in the modern digital world, there is no more sanctuary. There is no place left to hide.

All that leaves is the beach. And the forecast today is for warm and sunny.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone, once called the Boswell of Silicon Valley, is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is best-known as the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public-television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.