Grays Harbor County Public Utility District (PUD) in Washington state has just finished a fiber optic network to local schools and a local industrial park. The county has been strapped for Internet access, and this network is the first step in developing better connectivity to many of the homes and businesses along the route. Elected officials are also exploring new ways to encourage last mile connectivity.
The Need for Internet Access
The options for high-speed Internet access are limited in Grays Harbor County, Washington. About 74,000 people live in there, and about 78 percent of the population reports having some form of Internet access at home, but it's likely those that live in the rural areas don't have access to "broadband" as defined as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload) that meets certain other technical standards. While satellite Internet access continues to improve, satellite connectivity is still expensive, unreliable, and describing it as "broadband" is a stretch.
The FCC's data paints the situation in Grays Harbor County as similar to other areas where those living in rural areas have poor or no Internet access and many within small- or medium-sized towns have little or no choice. About 13 percent of the population have no access to broadband, and another 53 percent live under broadband monopoly. This means there is only a single provider for those people. Approximately 27 percent have a choice, but it is limited to two providers and typically between competing technologies, such as cable and DSL.
The numbers are even starker for rural areas and tribal lands: 29 percent of premises have no access in rural areas, and 59 percent on tribal lands are without Internet access. The numbers do not include satellite Internet access.
About 20 percent of the county's population are under the age of 18 and connecting schools is a high priority as many of the required school tests are now online. Some of the school districts are already connected to a fiber network, but some still have sparse connectivity. In the face of this reality, the Public Utility District (PUD) decided to expand their fiber network to provide access for school districts in the area.
Laws, $$$, Networks
In Washington, however, PUDs contend with a state law that allows them to build the network infrastructure, but prohibits them from providing service directly to customers. Grays Harbor PUD had some support from the state government, which provided the utility with $463,000 in their 2017-2019 capital budget to carry out the project.
Grays Harbor PUD has been in the telecommunications business since the late 1990s and over time they've built relationships with a number of private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that offer access for residents and businesses. The current network stretches across the county, and this new section will extend fiber along the roads between Elma and Satsop (explore the map here).
In June 2019, the PUD put the finishing touches on the network to the schools of Satsop and Elma. Schools and libraries can use funding from the federal E-Rate program to pay for Internet access and to fund network infrastructure projects. Schools in Grays Harbor County didn't use the E-rate program to build the physical network, but the can still dedicate the federal funds to help pay for the connections to the network.
Since the project was built by the PUD, it can easily expand beyond the schools and has already expanded to connect the Schouweiller industrial park.
Local newspaper The Vidette reports that State Representative Mike Chapman and Representative Steve Tharinger were in attendance at an event celebrating the completion of the network and spliced some of the final fiber cables. The representatives, along with Senator Kevin Van De Wege, had played a key role in securing the state funds for the project. In the news release, PUD Core Services Director Rob Hanny described how the project will benefit the community:
“In addition to providing options for new services and new service providers in the community, this project will improve the availability of broadband services for the Elma and Satsop school districts and businesses. This project also provides the potential for providing additional connectivity to Mason County and the I-5 corridor.”
Tim Martin told The Vidette that his business, Harbor Pacific, a soda distribution company needed the high-speed Internet access. He described how the business struggled with unreliable Internet access and how it proved a boost to productivity:
“We’ve had issues in the past where the internet will go down and now we’re back to paper. And our productivity goes down, and our accuracy is not as good.”
The Last Mile Problem
Inspiring Internet access companies to develop last mile infrastructure has been one of the great challenges for publicly owned Internet infrastructure projects. Developing middle mile networks certainly reduce the overall cost of network deployment, but relying on ISPs to build the last mile connections can result in cherry picking to more affluent areas, defeating the purpose of the investment.
Congressman Kilmer has a new plan for this last mile problem in Washington state that has been hampering residential Internet access in rural areas. He's introduced the Broadband for All Act, H.R. 2921, in the hopes of finding a way to encourage people and entities with the means and the drive to build their own infrastructure. The bill, which hasn't had a hearing yet, would provide a tax credit to consumers who take the initiative and build the last mile themselves. In rural areas, this “last mile” can be highly expensive and uneconomical for ISPs. In an interview on MyNorthwest, Congressman Kilmer envisioned a neighborhood or tenants in an industrial park as a typical group of consumers who might join forces to fund the last mile and qualifying for the tax credit:
“It would create a tax credit of up to 75 cents on the dollar, whether a neighborhood tries to make an investment to complete that last mile (of connectivity), or a business park … it would provide a refundable tax credit. And it’s technology neutral so folks can pick the option that is best for them.”
If it is effective, it could extend the impact of not only Grays Harbor PUD’s network, but also the other PUDs’ networks across the state. Washington, PUDs have been improving rural Internet access, but there is still more to do.
Learn more about the work of Mason PUD 3 in rural areas of western Washington by listening to Christopher's 2018 interview Justin Holzgrove and Isak Finer about expansion to more rural areas of the county.
Image of Lake Quinault Mist by Adbar [CC BY-SA 3.0]