When the folks in Kitsap County, Washington’s Lookout Lane neighborhood banded together and used a Local Utility District (LUD) to get better connectivity, they were thinking about their own homes, not about setting a precedent. A little over a year later, other groups of neighbors are following their lead.
Sick Of Slow Connections
The Lookout Lane community formed their LUD and worked with the Kitsap Public Utility District (KPUD) to expand its open access network to their neighborhood because they were stuck with slow CenturyLink DSL. Residents didn’t feel that they were getting what they were paying for at $60 per month and 1 Megabit per second (Mbps) on average download speed. Now they have options up to 1 gigabit symmetrical via the publicly owned open access network.
Forest Ridge Estates, which is adjacent to Lookout Lane, has formed an LUD and is already connected to fiber installed by KPUD, according to Angela Bennick from the Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet). Bennick says that there are two other neighborhoods that are considering a similar approach. KPUD is a member of NoaNet, whose open access fiber infrastructure connects that of other public utility districts across the state so people, businesses, and institutions in Washington can have high-quality connectivity.
Property owners pay for the connections themselves, but can pay off the cost upfront, over a 20-year period, or a combination of the two. Connections were from $10,000 - $14,000 in Lookout Lane, but depend on a variety of factors; property owners usually consider the investment an added value to their home. In order to establish an LUD, a neighborhood needs a majority of homeowners to sign a petition to establish the LUD.
We spoke with General Manager Bob Hunter and Superintendent of Telecom Paul Avis last year about the network and the Lookout Lane LUD during episode 237 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. They explained how the LUD process works and how folks in the KPUD service area are sometimes beginning the process as a last resort. Avis described what some of the people in Lookout Lane experienced:
…[Y]eah, they had a problem there. The DSL service was inadequate for those that even had it. Some of them couldn't even get it. This is a little tangent here, but to go into the reason why this is happening right now, is that the current provider in the area has used the phrase, "Permanent exhaustion," and really what it is it's aggregation to the point of oblivion basically. If you have a box, from that box it serves multiple houses, you're all sharing that line. We all know that, we all have accepted the fact that, yeah, at certain times of the day, my service will be slower because everybody's on, everybody's trying to watch Netflix. It gets to a certain point though, if you have 20 people on there that's acceptable. If you have 4000 people on there, that becomes incredibly unacceptable at that point.
Avis goes on to explain that, rather than invest in upgrades that will allow more subscribers to use the infrastructure and keep users’ experiences acceptable, they use the concept of permanent exhaustion. When a property owner moves away and cancels their account, the ISP denies service to the subsequent property owner.
…[W]hat they've done is they've reclaimed, basically, that one point is alleviating the pressure on their network to the point where they're just going to say, "No, it's not available anymore," until they can get back to an acceptable level.
Kitsap Public Utility District
KPUD began serving residents and businesses in the Puget Sound area when they heard complaints about how difficult it was to obtain access. Until the early 2000s, the entity focused on water and wastewater services. The fiber optic network first connected municipal facilities, schools, libraries, public safety facilities and community anchor institutions. They now use COS Service Zones software so potential subscribers can register their interest and neighborhoods like Lookout Lane and Forest Ridge Estates know when they qualify and can begin the LUD process.
KPUD has an informative page on their website that explains the process and keeps the community updated on KPUD expansion.
We need to think of it as a utility. It's exactly where we were 60, maybe 70 years ago with electricity. When we think about it, we think, "Oh, how quaint that people could even believe, 'Eh, we really don't need electricity that much.'" I think that's what we will look back on in 70 years at this period, too, in Kitsap County. I think what that means is the good and the bad. Think about how your utilities are served right now. Think about how you're billed for your utilities, how that all comes to play, and really think about it though. Do your electric rates go down every year? Are they steady? Do they go up? What does it cost to install that kind of thing to your house? That's really what it means to treat it as a utility. There's good, too, the service and all that things, but I think it's time to start, as a people, as a public, the people who are at the end of it, to just change our mindset, and once we all accept that, it will really push the ball forward and help us to all get the telecom as a utility in this county.