By Eric Rosane / email@example.com
It was a banner year for broadband investments in Lewis County, as the Public Utility District (PUD) secured roughly $12.9 million from state and federal governments to bring broadband infrastructure to the most rural parts of the county.
Largely thanks to the Biden Administration’s American Rescue Plan Act and the recently-passed bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there’s currently an unprecedented and historic amount of money being funneled into rural broadband infrastructure
But what comes next?
Lewis County PUD Public Affairs Manager Willie Painter said it’s possible parts of Vader, Elbe, Mineral, Ashford, Chehalis and Adna could have affordable and reliable fiber-optic internet by 2024, but there’s no hard timeline on when this vision might become a reality.
The PUD applied for multiple grants this year, stipulating a 24-month construction schedule, and more work is underway to apply for additional funding. Results from a fiber network analysis conducted by the PUD over the last couple years resulted in 17 service zones being identified in Lewis County, as well as price tags to bring the zones internet.
“At no time in history have we seen this amount invested in broadband telecommunication infrastructure,” Painter said. “Our motto has been ‘strike while the iron’s hot.'”
Painter said the next step is to bid the projects out, possibly over the coming year or so, once they’ve finished contract funding and have the funds fully secured. Lewis County PUD in 2021 was awarded $4.7 million grants through the state Public Works board, one $500,000 grant to bring broadband out to Rainbow Falls State Park, and a single $3 million USDA grant.
Funding secured this last year will eventually bring fiber internet infrastructure to more than 2,800 residential and commercial customers, roughly 9% of PUD customers according to the analysis.
The PUD has established a public-private partnership model that will see the public utility build, maintain and manage above-ground fiber infrastructure on existing PUD lines for the benefit of private telecommunication businesses.
It’s a similar marketplace model to what Kitsap County PUD has been doing for years now, Painter said.
“I think, from a customer perspective, the more the merrier because it gives them a different number of providers to use,” Painter said, adding later: “When there are multiple providers competing for the same customer, you also find some price competitiveness enters into the picture.”
In a Thursday phone call, PUD Commissioner Ed Rothlin praised the work and grant writing knowhow that staff have shown. He emphasized that the public utility is moving forward with caution, too, as government grant writing often stipulates a match of some sort or certain requirements.
“We want to make sure that at the end of the day, if we decide to proceed, we want to deliver an affordable, sustainable and reliable product over time,” he said. “We’re in the electrical business, and broadband is an opportunity to just offer another service.”
Having served as the Chehalis School District superintendent for about a decade, Rothlin said he’s familiar with the inequities of high-speed internet access for both students, family and staff. The grant funded opportunities provide an exciting opportunity to partner with both public and private entities to address those gaps.
“Obviously, the state and federal government sees a need in Lewis County because they’re willing to invest. And that’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 the equivalent of providing books to our students.”
He was speaking during a public hearing on House Bill 1336, which later passed and now allows PUDs and ports in Washington state the opportunity to offer wholesale services of broadband internet directly to customers.
Cynthia Swift, former manager of the East Lewis County Chamber of Commerce, knows all too well the plight of internet access from her home in Mineral. Thanks to this funding, she and her neighbors will eventually have robust access to broadband.
“For my area, I think it’s going to help so much,” 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 hard-wired connection.
For many years, bringing internet infrastructure out to the eastern parts of Lewis County has been a high priority for residents. Many people, Swift said, don’t have a satellite television subscription and rely on the internet and their cellphones for the news and communication.
“For many seniors and people on fixed incomes, that was their only source of communication, was their computer. And when it wasn’t reliable, it was very frustrating for them and their family members,” she said.
Swift said the PUD’s efforts have been “extremely tenacious. They know the needs of the people and they want to serve the needs of the people. They have been bulldogs.”
Vader Mayor Joe Schey said in a statement earlier this year that it was “truly 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 anything else in the region, and with a competitive ecosystem of internet service providers from which our residents can choose. Without a doubt, this will attract further development to the area and give new opportunities to current residents and businesses,” he said in a statement.
In a later email, Schey said Vader and the nearby area is only serviced by one provider, which offers speeds up to 30 megabits per second download and 1.5 megabits upload. The quality, he said, is not consistent for many customers, especially with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What’s next on the horizon for Lewis County PUD? Possibly the Randle-Packwood area.
Lewis County PUD has a request for approximately $10.6 million from the state’s Infrastructure Acceleration Grants program through the Washington State Broadband Office to connect nearly 3,000 customers in Randle-Packwood to broadband. The county, in partnership with ToledoTel, also has a separate application in for the Winlock area.
It’s expected recipients will be named this month.
“We recognize that this is a big enough problem that it will take many different entities,” to solve the problem, Painter said of internet access. “It’s, in our estimation, a $104 million problem.”
The PUD currently has only about 88 miles of dark, wholesale fiber up in the county, mostly for public connections in schools and at dam projects, Painter said.