Following hundreds of requests from community members urging the local Public Utility District (PUD) to address the lack of Internet access in Lewis County, Washington, the Lewis County PUD is answering the call with a proposal to construct an open access countywide fiber-to-the-home network and a relentless pursuit of broadband construction grant opportunities on behalf of its 33,000 members.
The plan to construct the 110-mile-long fiber backbone – anticipated to cost between $110 and $130 million to build – is months in the making. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the PUD has applied for over $30 million of state and federal broadband grants.
In August of 2020, the PUD applied for a $5.5 million grant through the Washington State Public Works Board to provide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services to residents of four communities in the western region of the county – “from west Chehalis to Adna and Pe Ell along Highway 6, and down through the Boistfort Valley,” according to the PUD’s website.
When that grant application was not awarded, the PUD turned to the USDA’s Community Connect program to propose a smaller project that would serve three of the four aforementioned communities. The USDA is expected to announce those grant recipients soon.
Lewis County PUD’s most recent attempt to access funding for the project was in May of 2021, when the PUD’s Commissioners requested that Lewis County Commissioners reserve $1 million of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for the countywide broadband project. The PUD, hopeful that county officials will honor the request, is expected to issue a formal request to the county to allocate additional ARPA funding for broadband expansion in the near future. Lewis County PUD hopes to combine the county funding with other federal and state grants to pay for network construction.
With several more state and federal broadband grant opportunities anticipated later this year, Lewis County PUD is eager to move forward with the proposed project in order to deliver reliable Internet access for its members.
County Commissioners Weighing Public and Private Proposals
Investing in the countywide fiber-to-the-home network is one of many broadband expansion proposals Lewis County Commissioners will consider in allocating Rescue Plan funds. On September 21, Lewis County Commissioners issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to assess the options available to the county to expand high-speed Internet coverage to underserved and unserved areas. Responses to the RFP are due October 1.
The RFP states that Lewis County is “aiming to improve Internet access to the greatest number of locations feasible” and that the county is “willing to entertain both public and private partnerships in order to achieve these goals.”
Lewis County Commissioners will have to weigh their options, but based on the RFP’s criteria, dedicating a portion of the county’s ARPA funds to Lewis County PUD seems to be a no-brainer.
The PUD already has over 60-miles of fiber optic cabling deployed across the middle of the rectangle-shaped county, which currently supports the operation of the PUD’s electric distribution system. Building additional fiber would be a relatively easy process for the PUD, as Lewis County PUD has access to an existing network of electric utility poles that can be utilized to hang fiber. The map below shows Lewis County PUD’s current fiber system [pdf].
One Internet Service Provider (ISP) which may derail the PUD’s hopes to access the county’s broadband expansion funds is TeledoTel, a local ISP which serves 2,200 premises in Lewis County. The Teledo-based ISP intends to respond to the county’s RFP with a plan to use the funding to expand high-speed Internet access to 3,500 residents in the towns of Winlock and Napavine.
When asked by Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope what the private ISP could do with $1 million in ARPA funds, ToledoTel’s COO Dale Merten said it “would likely pick up 2,600 homes in the Winlock area,” reports The Chronicle. “But would I go out to Packwood? No,” Merten later added.
As County Commissioners evaluate their options, what may tip the scales in favor of the PUD are the prices the different providers will charge for service. TeledoTel currently charges $125.95 per month for symmetrical 100 megabits per second (Mbps) residential service and $214.95 per month for residential gigabit service. TeledoTel’s residential service prices are far higher than the estimated cost for residential service Lewis County PUD plans to offer: $49 per month with a startup cost of $100.
Lewis County PUD is in a strong position to provide high-speed Internet access to the greatest number of unserved Lewis County residents, while fostering competition, driving down residential Internet subscription costs, and having to negotiate very few rights-of-way agreements.
There may be opportunities for the two to work together. TeledoTel has shown interest in being a last-mile provider on the PUD’s proposed open access infrastructure. “ToledoTel certainly wants to be a last-mile retail provider using the PUD’s new infrastructure,” Merten said. And although no written agreement exists, Merten told The Chronicle he’s “confident it will come to fruition.”
County Commissioners might seize the opportunity to assist both by funding Lewis County PUD’s open access infrastructure, while suggesting TeledoTel provide retail service using the PUD’s network. That would kick-start a project which could result in as many as 29,000 county premises served with fiber infrastructure.
Although two bills signed into state law in May of 2021 give Lewis County PUD the authority to offer retail broadband service directly to residents, the PUD is opting to follow a wholesale model because, PUD General Manager Chris Roden believes “using state and federal taxpayer dollars to fund a private Internet service provider’s infrastructure creates the ethical dilemma of using public funds for a private, profit-seeking endeavor.”
“We think it makes sense to leverage the expertise of private providers to directly serve customer broadband needs, but to do so in an open access model so that multiple providers have the opportunity to serve an area; this creates competition, and with competition comes customer options, typically lower prices, and better customer service by providers,” Roden said.
PUD Survey Reveals Lewis County’s Dire Need
Lewis County PUD conducted a feasibility study to explore expanding high-speed Internet access to areas within its service area that lack broadband access in November 2019, utilizing a $50,000 grant received from the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) and $17,000 the PUD contributed itself to the work.
The PUD picked up the pace on the project shortly after the pandemic began when many Lewis County residents found they lacked sufficient Internet speeds at home to transition to remote work and distance learning.
“Several phone calls came in every week from distraught residents that they couldn’t work from home or their children couldn’t participate in a remote learning environment because they didn’t have fast enough Internet speeds,” said Willie Painter, the PUD’s Public Affairs Manager.
In April of 2020, the PUD conducted a countywide broadband survey which included a speed test. The survey revealed that the majority of PUD members had only one ISP to choose from and received Internet service at speeds below 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.
“The survey, which was taken by over 3,300 PUD customers, showed that 77.2 percent of respondents had Internet speeds which don’t meet the [FCC] definition of broadband. Furthermore, a staggering 97.7 percent of respondents indicated that they believed that the Internet is an essential utility,” reports the PUD.
“Other than a select few areas of the county that have private broadband providers who offer high-speed service, the survey results provided critical data that showed the dire conditions that the majority of PUD customers face with insufficient access,” said Jeff Baine, Lewis County PUD’s Information Systems and Telecommunications Manager.
Baine, who led the survey effort, also launched a local broadband action team called the “Broadband Champions” which promoted the survey and facilitated the subsequent work to create the plan for the fiber network that would cover the entire service territory of the PUD.
Lewis County PUD is One of Many
Lewis County PUD is one of Washington’s many Public Utility Districts (PUDs) and district ports eager to access local, state and federal funds to support broadband expansion projects, since State Governor Jay Inslee signed two bills easing legal restrictions on PUDs and ports’ authority to provide retail broadband service in May of 2021.
Similar to the Lewis County PUD, the district port and PUD serving Skagit County, Washington are joining together to construct an 81-mile open access fiber backbone. Jefferson County PUD is pursuing a $12.4 million grant to fund the construction of fiber infrastructure from Quilcene to Discovery Bay. The port of Whitman County is working toward building fiber networks in Pine City and Malden, with grant funding and a partnership with Ziply Fiber.
Many are pursuing grants through the Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO), which state legislators allocated $326 million to for grants related to broadband infrastructure projects in the state’s capital construction budget for Fiscal Year 2021-23. District ports, PUDs, municipalities and nonprofits are the only entities eligible to apply for the grants. In the first of two funding rounds, the WSBO is making $25 million available in matching funds for local partners. The first application cycle opened on September 15 and closes on November 15.
According to the state Department of Commerce, WSBO’s goal is to provide symmetrical 1 gigabit Internet access to all community anchor institutions across the state of Washington by 2026.
Header image by Wikimedia Commons user Steven Pavlov via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International