Whidbey Island, WA Poised To See Major Fiber Expansion

Whidbey Island, Washington is the latest region poised to benefit from a major, multi-pronged boost in state fiber investment. Financing provided by the Washington State Public Works Board, combined with federal broadband infrastructure acceleration grants, should soon dramatically expand affordable fiber across various parts of the island.

Last December, the Washington State Public Works Board approved $44.6 million in financing for 15 broadband projects across the state. That included $4.8 million for the Port of Coupeville on Whidbey Island to expand fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) broadband service to under-served island communities.

As with countless U.S. towns and cities, Covid-19 home schooling and telecommuting dramatically highlighted a need to improve access to affordable, future-proof broadband infrastructure.

“We learned during the pandemic when we were trying to do school and Zoom meetings or virtual meetings, that having that capacity in the Internet was critical to our ability to educate our kids, do business, operate government and even just have parties with our families when we’re in isolation,” Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair recently told the Whidbey News Times.

Bidding Process For Potential Partners Now Open

Initial reports stated that the Port of Coupeville would primarily be working with Ziply fiber, which was expected to finance the remainder of the fiber project’s estimated $8 million price tag. Other reports suggested that Ziply would be seeing exclusive operation/ownership rights as part of the arrangement. 

But Ziply and Port of Coupeville representatives told ILSR those reports were premature, the full scope and details of the project remain very much in flux, and additional bidders were now being considered.

“Things have evolved since the article came out,” a Ziply representative said. “The Port of Coupeville is seeking competitive bids from providers to exercise their grant award. We do not have a timeline on when this process will be complete.”

Michalopoulos said the Port of Coupeville recently opened the bidding process to Astound broadband, a freshly-rebranded Internet Service Provider (ISP) composed of the remnants of RCN, Grande, Wave, enTouch and Digital West. Once a provider is chosen, the network will take eighteen to twenty-four months to build, officials state. 

“Because we are a port and must follow certain guidelines for public works projects, we opened up the bidding process to include Astound,” Michalopoulos said. “This means that both companies, Ziply and Astound, will submit a letter of intent to compete on the conditions of the project. My Board will then study the letters of intent and decide which provider to partner with.”

While the full geography of the project is also still being hashed out, the project was originally budgeted to shore up access to 1,040 Central Whidbey homes shown to be underserved by a 2020 feasibility study, itself funded by a $50,000 grant from the state Community Economic Revitalization Board. The Island’s strategic plan provides more detail. 

In 2021 the Port of Coupeville received $100,000 in additional funding courtesy of the Rural County Economic Development Fund, itself built on the back of a state sales tax rebate designed to boost economic development in more rural counties.

Unreliable FCC data claims 100 percent of island residents have access to broadband at the FCC’s lagging broadband definition of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but Microsoft data shows that 35,000 island residents don’t access the Internet at broadband speeds due to either limited availability or high cost. 

State Grants Target Ports and Tribal Associations

The Port of Coupeville project is occurring simultaneously with additional projects targeting other parts of the island. 

Last January, thirteen Washington State counties, ports and Tribal associations received $145 million in Broadband Infrastructure Acceleration grants. Among those awards was a $9.5 million grant to Whidbey Telecom, earmarked to significantly expand the BiG GiG Fiber Network to residents and businesses in underserved areas of South Whidbey.

In the spring of 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed HB 2664 into law, giving state ports the authority to develop open-access dark fiber broadband infrastructure for lease to all interested service providers. Early last year, the state eliminated most significant barriers to community broadband, further greenlighting deployment model experimentation in the state.

Eliminating protectionist barriers to local deployment experimentation, combined with a massive infusion of investment money across numerous initiatives, should go a long way toward putting a major dent in monopoly power, expanding access, and reducing consumer prices.

Inline image of Port of Coupeville sign courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)