Jefferson County PUD Using More Than $20 Million in Grants To Expand Fiber in Washington State

Jefferson County, Washington’s Public Utility District (PUD) is just the latest to take advantage of a flood of new grants — and recently-eliminated restrictions on community broadband — to expand access to affordable fiber across the state.  

Over the last few months, the PUD - situated northwest of Seattle, just across the Puget Sound - has been awarded more than $11 million in grants, including $1 million from the Washington State Public Works board, and another $9.7 million in Broadband Infrastructure Acceleration grants doled out by the Washington State Department of Commerce. The funds will help the PUD connect 2,600 homes in Gardiner, Quilcene, Cape George, Discovery Bay, and Marrowstone Island over the next two years.

Locally Operated Infrastructure, Affordable Prices, Fast Speeds

Construction is expected to start later in 2022, with the first subscribers to come online sometime in the first half of 2023. A project breakdown says they hope to provide basic speeds of 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $65 a month, and speeds of 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) for $90 a month. The network will be open access, which means that additional ISPs (including, presumably, those currently offering service on the existing network) will be able to continue into the expanded areas.The PUD plans to offer a low-income tier for $45/month ($15 after the Affordable Connectivity Program subsidy), which is welcome to see.

The Jefferson County PUD currently provides electricity to 19,000 local residents, and water and septic service to an additional 5,000. While the PUD has spent decades building a fiber network that now connects about 50 businesses in Port Townsend, until 2021 Washington state law prohibited them from providing service directly to users, forcing the PUD to lease access to a third-party ISP to provide retail Internet access.

Last May, Washington state lawmakers voted to eliminate the restrictive legislation, paving the way for a wide variety of new Internet access alternatives across the state.

Freshly encouraged by the move, countless Tribal organizations and communities are now jockeying for Covid-19 relief funding, federal infrastructure funding, and state broadband grants. The funds are being used for projects ranging from free wireless service (the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation) to large public-private fiber deployments (Lewis County).

Filling the Gaps

A 2021 survey by the Washington State Department of Commerce found that 64 percent of Washington households reported download speeds slower than the base FCC definition of broadband, currently a paltry 25 Mbps downstream, 3 Mbps upstream. The state is currently considering raising the base definition of broadband to 100 Mbps downstream, 20 Mbps upstream. 

Rural Jefferson County is no stranger to broadband coverage gaps. The county has just one incorporated city (Port Townsend), and its 30,000 residents are no strangers to the impact regional telecom monopolization has on the quality and affordability of Internet access. 

As with many regions, CenturyLink’s (now Lumen) domination of the competitive field in the region has resulted in substandard speeds, high prices, and poor customer service, Eloise Langenbach, operator of the Brinnon, Washington Food Bank, told Crosscut

“You couldn’t stream anything,” Langenbach said of trying to use CenturyLink DSL, which she dubbed “very, very sad.” “We’re not worth the effort, I guess, to put the money into [fiber] because there aren’t enough people.”

Centurylink and other dominant regional providers aren’t likely to meaningfully expand fiber access to rural parts of the area any time soon. So, like a growing roster of U.S. communities, Jefferson County locals, bolstered by a surge in federal and state grants, have been forced by market failure to take matters into their own hands.

The PUD continues to pursue an array of other grants for additional projects, ranging from more state funds to USDA ReConnect.