By Eric Rosane / [email protected]
It was a banner year for broadband investment in Lewis County, as the Public Service District (PUD) secured approximately $ 12.9 million from state and federal governments to bring infrastructure to high flow in the more rural areas of the county.
Thanks in large part to the US Biden Administration’s bailout act and the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure investment and jobs law, an unprecedented and historic amount of money is being pumped into rural broadband infrastructure.
But what comes next?
Lewis County PUD public affairs director Willie Painter said parts of Vader, Elbe, Mineral, Ashford, Chehalis and Adna may have affordable and reliable fiber-optic internet by 2024 , but there is no precise timeline as to when this vision could become a reality.
PUD has applied for several grants this year, stipulating a 24-month construction schedule, and further work is underway to request additional funding. The results of a fiber optic network analysis conducted by PUD over the past two years have identified 17 service areas in Lewis County, along with price tags for bringing up the Internet areas.
“At no time in history have we seen this amount invested in broadband telecommunications infrastructure,” Painter said. “Our motto has been” strike for the iron is hot. ‘”
Painter said the next step is to bid on the projects, possibly within the next year or so, once they have completed contract funding and funds are fully secured. Lewis County PUD in 2021 received $ 4.7 million in grants through the State Public Works Council, a $ 500,000 grant to bring broadband to Rainbow Falls State Park and a single $ 3 million USDA grant.
Funding secured last year will ultimately provide fiber Internet infrastructure to more than 2,800 residential and commercial customers, or approximately 9% of PUD customers according to the analysis.
The PUD has established a public-private partnership model that will see the utility build, maintain and manage surface fiber infrastructure on existing PUD lines for the benefit of private telecommunications companies.
It’s a similar market model to what Kitsap County PUD has been doing for years now, Painter said.
“I think from the customer’s point of view, the crazier you are because it gives them a different number of vendors to use,” Painter said, later adding, “When there are multiple vendors competing for the same customer, you also find some price competitiveness enters the picture.
In a phone call Thursday, PUD Commissioner Ed Rothlin praised the hard work and writing skills the staff displayed. He pointed out that the public service is also moving cautiously, as the drafting of government grants often stipulates some sort of match or certain requirements.
“We want to make sure that at the end of the day, if we decide to continue, we want to provide an affordable, sustainable and reliable product over time,” he said. “We are in the electricity business and broadband is an opportunity to just offer another service. ”
After serving as the Chehalis School District superintendent for about a decade, Rothlin said he knew the inequalities in high-speed internet access for students, family and staff. Grant-funded opportunities provide an exciting opportunity to partner with public and private entities to fill these gaps.
“Obviously, the state and the federal government see a need in Lewis County because they are prepared to invest. And it’s a huge investment on their part, ”he said.
And other public school leaders see it the same way.
About a year ago, during the 2021 legislative session, Winlock Superintendent Jerry Cameron said that “Internet access is like providing books to our students.”
He was speaking at a public hearing on Bill 1336, which was later passed and now allows PUDs and Washington State ports to offer wholesale broadband internet services directly to customers.
Cynthia Swift, former director of the East Lewis County Chamber of Commerce, knows all too well the fate of internet access from her home in Mineral. With this funding, she and her neighbors will eventually have robust broadband access.
“For my region, I think it will help a lot,” she said.
For her and many residents, satellite internet is the name of the game. The speeds are tolerable, she said, but it’s nowhere near as reliable as a cable connection.
For many years, bringing the internet infrastructure to the eastern parts of Lewis County has been a high priority for residents. Many people, Swift said, do not have satellite TV subscriptions and depend on the Internet and their cell phones for information and communications.
“For many seniors and people on fixed incomes, it was their only source of communication, it was their computer. And when it wasn’t reliable, it was very frustrating for them and their family members, ”she said.
Swift said PUD’s efforts have been “extremely tenacious. They know the needs of the people and they want to meet the needs of the people. They were bulldogs.
Vader Mayor Joe Schey said in a statement earlier this year that it was “really exciting” to be one of the first communities in the county to receive this infrastructure.
“Even more exciting is the prospect of connection speeds that rival any other in the region, and with a competitive ecosystem of Internet service providers from which our residents can choose. Without a doubt, this will attract more development to the region and provide new opportunities for current residents and businesses, ”he said in a statement.
In a subsequent email, Schey said Vader and the neighboring area are only served by one provider, which offers speeds of up to 30 megabits per second for download and 1.5 megabits for download. Quality, he said, is not constant for many customers, especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s next on the horizon for the Lewis County PUD? Maybe the Randle-Packwood area.
Lewis County PUD has applied for approximately $ 10.6 million from the state’s infrastructure acceleration grant program through the Washington State Broadband Office to connect nearly 3,000 Randle-Packwood customers to broadband. The county, in partnership with ToledoTel, also has a separate app for the Winlock area.
Recipients are expected to be named this month.
“We recognize that this is a big enough problem that it takes a lot of different entities,” Painter said of Internet access. “This is, in our opinion, a problem of 104 million dollars.”
The PUD currently only has about 88 miles of wholesale dark fiber in the county, mostly for public connections at schools and dam projects, Painter said.