This is the transcript for episode 485 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. On this episode, Christopher Mitchell welcomes Willie Painter, the public affairs manager for the Lewis County’s Public Utility District (PUD), to talk about what the county has been doing to address the lack of connectivity. We reported on Lewis County PUD's plan to connect its 33,000 members through an open access fiber-to-the-home network in October. Listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.
Willie Painter: I really do think that this type of a public private model, as I've just described, may be the golden ticket for one of the more efficient and effective ways of getting customers served in a community.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today, I'm speaking with Willie Painter, who is in Lewis County, Washington, where he is the public affairs manager for the public utility district. Welcome to the show.
Willie Painter: Thanks so much Christopher, happy to be here.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, I am thrilled to be talking to another public utility district. I've been tracking what a lot of them have been doing over the years, keeping a close eye as best we can on one of the states that has the most interesting public sector investments. But I think maybe we should start by just talking a little bit about Lewis County. I expect, like many others, you probably have more land than many of the eastern states, and fewer people than some of their cities. Is that more or less accurate for Lewis County?
Willie Painter: It is indeed. In fact, I think we are the largest county in the state of Washington by geographic area. So Lewis county is comprised of 2,450 square miles, roughly. As of this last decennial census, there's about 75,000 people residing in Lewis County, and approximately 30,000 households.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. So that's quite a low density, but I would guess that probably there is some population centers and things like that, and a lot of the county's uninhabited. Is that more or less accurate?
Willie Painter: Yeah. Historically, our county has been known as a hub for the forest products industry, so we have tremendous tracks of land that are essentially uninhabited, and are managed forest land. So we do have a few key population centers in the western portion of our county, the cities of Centralia and Chehalis, and then to the eastern portion of our county, the city of Morton. But outside of that, the other communities are relatively small in size.
Christopher Mitchell: And with where you are, I'm guessing you don't have any dams.
Willie Painter: As in hydroelectric dams?
Christopher Mitchell: Right, yes.
Willie Painter: Oh, actually we have quite a number of dams in Lewis County.
Christopher Mitchell: There you go. There's my-
Willie Painter: And Lewis County Public Utility District owns and operates one of those dams, and then a municipal utility to the north, Tacoma Public Utilities, owns and operates a few other dams in our county as well.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. So, my question then was, so you do handle electricity then through your Public Utility District.
Willie Painter: Yeah. And in fact, that is really the line of business and the service to our customer owners that we are most known for. We were established by a vote of the people back in 1936, and have been an electric utility all that time. The broadband or telecom portion of our business is a relatively new thing for our utility. While we've had about 88 miles of dark fiber in the air for about the last 15, 20 years, most of that has been for helping us to more efficiently operate our electric utility. And with the pandemic, and knowing the just significant degree of unserved broadband, unserved folks in the community, we are making the transition as a utility to provisioning broadband infrastructure for the purpose of getting those unserved communities connected to high speed Internet.
Christopher Mitchell: And were you considering those kinds of investments prior to the pandemic? So if we go back in time two years ago, did you have a sense that this was a possibility for the Public Utility District to really focus on?
Willie Painter: Yeah, it was definitely there. It was kind of in a stasis of non-urgent awareness and planning, but when the pandemic hit and schools were shutting down, and businesses were forcing their workers to work from home, that of course shined the spotlight very intensely on the severity of broadband unserved communities in Lewis County, to the extent that that really fired up the utility to engage in what I would consider to be a comprehensive planning effort. So chronologically, in early 2020, right as the pandemic hit, we launched a community-wide broadband survey that included a speed test component. It was very well responded to, like 10% of our customer base took the survey, and as surveys go, that's a pretty high response rate.
Willie Painter: The speed test showed that 77.2% of respondents did not have broadband, according to the FCC's definition of 25 down and three up. Furthermore, an astonishing 97% of respondents said that Internet access, they believed, is an essential utility, which I think had they been asked that question well prior to the pandemic, that number probably would've been quite a bit lower. But the pandemic really, I think, was a moment of realization for folks that, "Wow, having access to Internet is really a 21st century critical quality of life utility that we need to carry on with our lives."
Willie Painter: So following that survey, that really established where the need was, which was virtually everywhere throughout the county, and we started down the path in partnership with the Northwest Open Access Network to design a network build out, truly for our entire Public Utility District service territory. So, that process resulted in shovel ready designs for what we ended up designing, were 17 broadband service zones throughout the county, total of about 28,000 customer connections potentially, with a total estimated construction budget of $104 million. So having those shovel ready designs and estimates in hand by really the second quarter of 2021, that has empowered our utility to be very competitive in going after state and federal grant dollars to help fund these construction deployments.
Christopher Mitchell: It's particularly interesting to hear you say that. And when I look at what has been written about your approach, it does sound like you are very much emphasizing going after grants and things like that. And I just say that because, in talking to some of the other public utility districts, some of them have been around for longer, have been doing this... They really eschew federal dollars. They don't want to be anywhere near them. So I know that you've gone off of state dollars and then also looking at how to maximize federal dollars. So it seems like you've developed a more comprehensive plan than we generally see, even in terms of making sure you're not missing any opportunities.
Willie Painter: Yeah. It's kind of akin to government jurisdictions that either plan reactively as opposed to proactively. And I guess we would consider our effort, knowing that so little infrastructure for broadband exists in Lewis county, this was an opportunity to master plan what broadband deployment could look like thoughtfully and strategically and cost effectively for our entire county. Before, we were too far down the path of having done this community and that community and this other community disparately, and then having to try to figure out how it all plays into the larger scope of a countywide plan. So I guess perhaps not so good that it took us a while to get to this point, but also, I guess on the positive side, it's allowed us to really truly be proactive and comprehensive from a planning approach.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, from what I see, I think you may beat many of the other folks to full passings, making sure that everyone has that access. Because it certainly seems like you're moving along now, especially with the announcements in just the past few weeks. Do you want to share some of the good news that you've been able to announce recently?
Willie Painter: Yeah. So very, very exciting. Just this last week, we basically learned about roughly $13 million in combined grant awards. So from the Washington State Public Works Award, we were granted two separate projects each, in the amount of $4.7 million, so combined $9.4 million, to deploy broadband infrastructure to the communities of Vader, LB Mineral, and Ashford throughout our service territory. And then similarly in the last week, we learned that we are also the recipient of a $3 million grant from the USDA, as part of a $3.5 million project to deploy broadband from west Chehalis out to Adna and down through the Boistfort Valley. And then we have another 11 million requested to the Washington State Broadband office that I think we'll learn about in the first part of January 2022. And then, another about roughly 25 million of other grant proposals currently in development for future upcoming state and federal grant opportunities, including the USDA Reconnect program, which those in the industry know that that is one of the larger broadband funding opportunities that exists.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And I think you get extra points for being publicly owned in that, at this point, with the latest round now.
Willie Painter: We do. Yep. 15 points to be exact.
Christopher Mitchell: Which is not insignificant, as they say.
Willie Painter: Nope. When you get into this competitive environment where communities and particularly rural communities all throughout the country are vying for limited dollars, and even with the infusion of these infrastructure bills from Congress and what have you, it's still limited dollars when you think about the whole scope of need. These are going to be very competitive processes. So you're absolutely right. Every point counts in these funding opportunities.
Christopher Mitchell: With the change in legislation earlier this year, you now at the public utility district has the ability to offer retail services if it shows, but it doesn't seem like that has that at all changed your favorite approach to moving forward.
Willie Painter: Yeah, that's an accurate statement. So more specifically in May of this year, 2021, the Washington state legislature passed two bills that provide public utility districts and port districts the ability to provide retail broadband services to both residential and commercial customers. Lewis County PUD really advocated very strongly for that provision. But I think at the same time, we wanted to advocate for it to retain that optionality, but the practical path forward and the way that we've planned this network build out is actually through a public private partnership where we will, through our shovel ready plans, secure state and federal grant dollars, build the underlying infrastructure.
Willie Painter: So the middle last mile, the fiber to the premises as it were, and then through a partnership with private ISPs, they will actually be the ones that work directly to get the customer hooked up for our service. And so, we think that leveraging the past experience and the skillset and the expertise that those ISPs have makes a lot of sense for how we're able to really effectively serve customers and also make sure that the PUD keeps the expertise in the arena that we have it. And that's in infrastructure. Owning, maintaining, operating the infrastructure.
Christopher Mitchell: Now I'm curious whether you've had to walk a tight rope. I know that there's sometimes a little bit of a tense discussion with existing ISPs with whom you need to operate on your network, and you really want to see them really thrive as local companies. At the same time sometimes, they would prefer that they get grant dollars themselves. So has that been a challenge or have you been able to pretty much stay friendly with everyone?
Willie Painter: I wouldn't necessarily call it a challenge, but I think that that is just a reality in the industry right now. And that's not just for us locally, but I think that's getting experienced throughout the state, region, and perhaps even across the country, as public agencies have perhaps greater ability than they've had before to participate actively in these types of broadband infrastructure deployments. I think the private industry has perhaps at times felt threatened about this, not knowing what the future exactly looks like, right, that the greatest of all fears is the fear of the unknown, they often say. And so, I think that that has a number of industry players on edge about exactly how this needs to manifest and how it's going to look like throughout this transition process. But here in Lewis County, I'm really happy to report that we established a Lewis County broadband action team.
Willie Painter: We have private Internet service providers as members of our broadband action team, as well as government entities, like the PUD and county government. And so, it's been a very, I think, productive conversation about what public private partnership can look like so that we can make sure that we're supporting private industry and keep those jobs in the private sector, but also make sure that the infrastructure that gets built out largely with taxpayer dollars stays, I think, controlled in a public arena. And so, by these taxpayers going to the public utility district, which is a local governmental entity, the infrastructure stays publicly owned. And I guess additionally, in the form that we are putting it out there, it's also going to be open access so that multiple private ISPs are able to operate off of that infrastructure, which gives customers more choice, more pricing competition, perhaps better quality of customer service as a result of healthy competition on an open access network.
Willie Painter: And while it may be too early for me to say at this point, I really do think that this type of a public private model as I've just described may be the golden ticket for one of the more efficient and effective ways of getting customers served in a community, yet to be fully realized and understood. But we're very hopeful and our partnerships with the private industry are positive.
Christopher Mitchell: And you are already building, right? This is not hypothetical. You mentioned already that you had a whole bunch of fiber likely connecting your substations, the dam, those sorts of things, but have you been able to connect our last mile users and residents at this point?
Willie Painter: Yeah. So part of the initial 88 miles that we already have deployed, we already have one ISP who has been providing end use customer service through leased out strands of fiber on some of that infrastructure. And then with all of the network, the shovel rating network designs that I spoke about that we kind of just completed in 2021, we haven't quite gotten shovels in the ground or fiber hung along power poles quite yet, just because we've been waiting to secure those state and federal grants. And now that we have award letters in our hand, that has started the clock to basically a roughly 18 to 24 month build timeline. And so what we've begun sharing with the affected customers is that service activation can occur approximately two years from now, which I know for a lot of folks still seems like a long ways out, but that's the nature of infrastructure.
Willie Painter: But overall, folks have been just overjoyed to know that broadband access is actually going to happen for them. And so, I would just also offer that the scope of the issue here in Lewis County is massive. Our estimated construction for a countywide build, as I mentioned, 104 million. We're taking a little bite out of that here initially, but the PUD and other partners still have a long ways to go to fully address the problem of how we get 100% of our Lewis County residents and businesses connected to high speed service.
Christopher Mitchell: A question that probably very few of those 28, 29,000 households have, but people that I associate with always do, is have you gone with an active ethernet kind of solution or are you a passive optical network, what you're building out?
Willie Painter: Yeah. We're doing the latter. It's a PON network.
Christopher Mitchell: Is that more uncommon, or is it growing in common in terms of no one net designing? Do you have a sense? Because I feel like there are really no one net members. We're almost all ethernet people, and I'm just sort of curious if there's like a switch in terms of how people are thinking about it, or any insight into that?
Willie Painter: Yeah. Unfortunately, no insight from me. As public affairs manager for the utility, I often find myself in the position of helping to get the money, but in terms of some of the technical components of what the design is, I leave that to the engineers. And so, a great question for them, but yeah.
Christopher Mitchell: I wasn't sure if I was going to have a question you couldn't answer cause you've been rolling right through everything without even taking a hard breath. One of the things that I thought I saw was you are using some rescue plan dollars as well. Is that right?
Willie Painter: Technically no, not yet. We have made a request to our local county government, which received our American Rescue Plan Act dollars as part of the allocation or distribution out to all counties throughout the country. And as you're probably aware, there's a carve out in some of those ARPA allocations that can go for water, sewer, and broadband projects. So we have been in conversations with our county about a possible allocation from the ARPA dollars they received to help support these buildouts, and those conversations are still ongoing.
Willie Painter: And yeah. So as of yet, nothing concretely from ARPA, but there's still the possibility. I think ARPA in a context of broadband, while significant, pales in comparison to the Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act that was just passed by Congress signed by President Biden, as well as what we would hope to be the forthcoming Build Back Better bill. Both of those have a much more significant infusion of dollars for broadband projects. And so, I think that's where we're going to really begin to move the needle, less so with ARPA. Not wanting to discount ARPA, it's fine, but some bigger fish out there for us to get some money for these broadband deployments.
Christopher Mitchell: And I think a helpful civics note is that the county owns the public utility district effectively, if I'm not mistaken, but they're separate boards. Are they entirely separate? They don't have any-
Willie Painter: They're completely separate and in no way connected or associated. Yeah. So they both operate independently. The public utility district was created as its own local government entity by a vote of the people in 1936. We have a locally elected board of commissioners consisting of three elected commissioners. And then the county separately has their own elected board of commissioners also comprised of three elected officials.
Christopher Mitchell: Oh, that's good to know. I had just naively assumed that. Many municipal public power systems in other places have a board that actually answers to the city council board. But in this case, that's not the arrangement.
Willie Painter: Yeah. So yeah. Not wanting to get too much in the weeds there, and I don't know about the other states, but here in Washington state, there are actually three categories of utilities. You have the investor owned, which have their own private shareholders. You have municipal owned, which I think is the model that you're referring to. And then the final is consumer owned and that's what we are.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. One of the things that you mentioned is Build Back Better. And as I read it, Build Back Better doesn't have a lot directly for telecom specifically, but it is very interested in electricity. And I'm curious, are you planning, as you're building out this massive information infrastructure, how is that going to change the way electricity works for the public utility district? Is there a lot of smart meters and things like that that are being planned and other things?
Willie Painter: Yeah. All of those. So both advanced metering infrastructure, which as you're probably aware, requires telecommunications connection either through terrestrial based wire line or wireless, as well as SCADA systems, which allow us to both monitor and control our various pieces of electric infrastructure, everything from the dam to the substations and the electric infrastructure in between. So, both of those while, yes, Build Back Better is going to provide some great funding for some grid, resiliency grid hardening, and cybersecurity, and things of that nature in an electric utility context, telecommunications infrastructure is very much intertwined with those types of infrastructure builds. And in some ways, that works hand in hand. So the telecommunication infrastructure that the electric utility needs can be leveraged to help support a consumer based telecommunications build out and vice versa. And so, we're really trying to think also strategically about how to make sure that we're able to utilize those two modalities to ultimately support each other to the extent that they're able to as well.
Christopher Mitchell: Other people still show up at the meeting and say, "This is a disaster. We shouldn't be doing this." It feels like there's always a few people who just oppose anything. So I'm curious if you get some of that or if the community's just a hundred percent on board,
Willie Painter: Like any community, you're going to have a range of opinions and perspectives. Right? I don't know that we have too many folks that necessarily show up physically to meetings, although in this time of the pandemic, physical meetings still are a bit of a thing in the past, as most of our meetings are connected virtually. But as we've been pushing this information out about our broadband work and these recent awards, we do still have a lot of folks out there, maybe not a lot, we have some folks-
Christopher Mitchell: It can be loud and seem like there are many.
Willie Painter: Yeah. Right. But they share certain opinions or perspectives that fiber optic infrastructure is obsolete or is just as obsolete as copper based infrastructure because Starlink is coming and satellite service is going to be able to serve everybody, and a number of other differing perspectives about types of technologies. There's also some perspectives about whether or not public entities, like the PUD, should even be in the business of broadband deployment, and whether or not that should just remain in the private sector as it has for the most part traditionally been. And we're navigating those. We're trying to educate our customers as much as we possibly can. But I think at the end of the day, what you'll find and what we learn from the survey that we put out back in the first part of 2020 is the vast majority of folks in the community, they want and need broadband access.
Willie Painter: And I don't think they really care necessarily where it comes from. They just want it and want it now. And the utility district, because we already have a vast network of electric infrastructure, and as you're likely aware, fiber optics can often be hung aerially along power networks, that we're able to, I think, play an important and additive role in getting broadband deployed to these areas. Now we don't believe that we are the only, or should be, the only player in this arena. And as I mentioned before, I think that there is a place for several other different public entities to be engaged in this work, as well as the private industry, which has long been in the game and will continue to do so.
Christopher Mitchell: I think the only thing that you didn't mention in terms of people's opinions is, I want to see your face when I ask you this, but I'm going to guess there's some people who are worried you're going to make it too easy for people from California to keep moving up there.
Willie Painter: Well, yeah. Broadband aside, I think any number of topic or issue areas can get into those types of conversations.
Christopher Mitchell: People in Idaho are very adamant that they do not want any more Californians coming. So.
Willie Painter: This is less Willie from the PUD speaking and more just perhaps Willie him as a person speaking, right? The reality is, Louis County as a rural county in Western Washington has already been experiencing some pretty significant growth over the past few years. And I think just based upon knowledge of what kind of development plans are in place, both for commercial industrial, as well as large tracked residential, Lewis County is only expected to receive more growth. Broadband of course helps facilitate that in an age where employers offering the ability for folks to work from home, where it makes sense, as long as they have sufficient connectivity, right? And that's just the reality. I don't necessarily think it's so much a function of California, but perhaps more locally, folks in the Northern part of the Puget Sound area like Seattle and Tacoma, the larger urban and dense areas, folks are going to find the opportunity where they can come down here and be surrounded by beautiful majestic landscapes, rural landscapes.
Willie Painter: And at the same time, have the connectivity that allows them to engage in employment and/or eCommerce and whatever they might need that connectivity for. And similarly from the south, Portland, Oregon is also kind of a metropolis area where I think we're going to find some movement as well. And quite frankly, already are experiencing some movement.
Christopher Mitchell: Well, yes. You're going to have better access than one finds generally in those cities and suburbs. In some cases, they do have FIOS from the old service that Verizon had laid out, but now is operated by Frontier or now ... Sorry, I'm so old at this point, like I just forget all the different transitions. There's some company with a new name that's changed it three times in the past six years that is operating at Fiber. At any rate, the point is, is that people sometimes assume the cities have it good. In many cases, you're going to have better connectivity than a lot of major urban areas. Willie, I really appreciate your time today. I appreciate you taking some of these curve balls in good stride, and it's not often, I'm sure, you're talking about broadband and suddenly someone asks you to make fun of California. So I appreciate that.
Willie Painter: I appreciate the opportunity to share the Lewis County PUD and Lewis County story about broadband. And I just encourage you to check back in with us and others here in the county, because I foresee some really great things happening in the broadband arena for the folks who call this place home.
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. It's exciting that you're able to ... You'll get some ... You'll have some experience actually turning on people around the time that those IIAJ dollars are probably hitting your bank accounts as well. So we'll look forward to checking back in with you.
Willie Painter: All right. Thanks so much, Christopher. Appreciate it.
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