In March, Washington state legislators passed HB 2664 and sent it on to Governor Jay Inslee, who signed the bill on March 22nd. In the Port of Ridgefield, where the community has been developing plans for a dark fiber network, the community had advocated for the change. Now that the law will be changing for the better, they’re ready to pursue the partnerships they need to spur economic development and improve connectivity for residents and businesses.
Not A New Idea In The Port Of Ridgefield
Back in 2016, we reported how town officials from the Port of Ridgefield had already started setting aside funds to invest in a 42-mile dark fiber loop. The quality of residential and business Internet access options in the community depended on where a premise was located. The community’s Vice President of Innovation Nelson Holmberg described connectivity in the Port of Ridgefield as a “mixed bag”.
The port already had some fiber in place, as many do for communications between facilities and other uses, and port officials wanted to integrate those assets into the design of the new infrastructure. At the time, state law would only allow "rural" ports to use their fiber in any partnership agreements designed to offer connectivity to people or entities outside of the port districts. The Port of Ridgefield did not qualify as "rural". After advocacy from officials from the Port of Ridgefield and other ports around the state, legislators passed HB 2664, which amends the law to remove the restriction. All ports will soon be able to enter into wholesale arrangements with ISPs interested in leasing dark fiber to offer telecommunications services to the public.
Big Plans In Ridgefield
Last fall, the community in Clark County received a $50,000 grant from Washington’s Economic Revitalization Board, which they used to complete a feasibility study. There are approximately 7,000 people in and around the City of Ridgefield, which disqualified the port because it was not "rural" enough, in keeping with the law prior to HB 2664. Large ISPs, however, don’t consider Ridgefield densely populated enough to justify investment in the kind of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity businesses need. The community needed to do something to step out between the rock and the hard place.
“Limited broadband service here has left our community at a competitive disadvantage relative to retaining and attracting business, and it has hampered our educational institutions in delivering current, quality content,” said Port of Ridgefield Vice President, Innovation Nelson Holmberg. “That’s why we’ve been pushing hard to get a change to that law, and we’re excited our efforts have paid off.”
Community leaders’ consider a dark fiber network an important piece of their plans to inject economic development into the Discovery Corridor, one of the projects the Port of Ridgefield is developing. In the early 2000s, the Port Commission purchased 75 acres of land northeast of where I-5 passes through the town of Ridgefield. They are transforming the area to attract new businesses; the dark fiber loop will run through the Discovery Corridor.
Clark College and healthcare provider PeaceHealth Southwest are scheduled to begin new campuses in the area within the next year; they will need the kind of connectivity only available from fiber. The network is planned to also reach to the Vancouver campus of Washington State University, about 11 miles to the south along I-5.
Getting To It
As soon as a legislatively imposed 90-day waiting period ends, the Port of Ridgefield is ready to release a bid request for the project, hopefully by the end of June. At this point, the port has already earmarked approximately $1 million to dedicate to the $2.5 million project. They’re taking an incremental approach and hope to make at least some areas of the network available to lease to ISPs by the end of 2018. Holmberg tells us that the port’s capital budget for the next five years includes construction of the network and that:
[C]apital comes from operating revenue, tax revenue and real estate sales over the past decade or so that is set aside in our capital planning for the purpose of constructing facilities that aim to create jobs in the port district.
The Ports Of Washington
In 1911, the state passed the Washington Public Ports Act, which allows residents to form port districts and elect commissioners. The people of Ridgefield waited almost 30 years to form their port with the intention to spur economic development in the city of Ridgefield and in the region. Since establishing the port district, the community has expanded it several times by purchasing additional parcels of land.
Holmberg describes the port as a municipal corporation that works closely with the city and Clark County, but is a separate agency. Three elected commissioners govern the agency and a CEO operates it and manages the staff, which includes eight people. Officials at the port anticipate the Discovery Corridor as a location for new industries that need fiber optic connectivity.
“We’re going to start seeing manufacturing I think, that’s my hunch, with the vocational training that Clark College will offer,” Holmberg said. “Advanced composites, advanced manufacturing interest — a lot if it is going to be sparked by this new push for broadband infrastructure.”
Holmberg tells us that he and the Port of Ridgefield have been talking with interested ISPs over the past year. In addition to some of the large national corporate companies, small local ISPs have approached him to learn more.
Image of Port of Ridgefield Waterfront at morning with flock of birds courtesy of the Port of Ridgefield.