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Washington State Law Change Transformed Fiber Project in Poulsbo

| Written by Lisa Gonzalez | No Comments | Updated on Sep 4, 2013 The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at https://ilsr.org/washington-state-law-change-forces-poulsbo-fiber-project-into-wireless-mesh/

The story has been updated to fix errors. The original story described the project as a partnership but we have since learned it is a project of the Kitsap Public Utility District that is encouraged by the City.

We reported on Poulsbo, Washington, last fall after the community began a wireless pilot project providing a free high-capacity wireless mesh network throughout downtown. Kitsap Public Utility District is running the project, with encouragement from the City. An interview with Poulsbo City Council member Ed Stern filled in more details on this local project.

A wireless mesh pilot project was not the original plan. The public utility district had been investing in a fiber optic network to reduce costs for local government and provide better broadband for schools and hospitals. Stern and other city leaders also recognized that encouraging telecommuting would keep local dollars in the community. Poulsbo is very close to Seattle and city leadership hoped to draw employees from Seattle offices and encourage economic development. They offered a high quality of life and knew better broadband would draw more employers to Poulsbo.

The partners installed a fiber backbone throughout the city and had planned to expand last mile connections in the near future. Poulsbo also codified changes in conduit policy with new ordinances to better manage public rights-of-way. The code requires private providers to first use existing city conduit and the city reserves the right to lease it to them. This policy prevents unnecessary wear and tear and traffic disruption on local streets.

However, the state legislature erected barriers that derailed the full project by revoking PUD authority to offer direct retail services. To this day, public utility districts are required to wholesale access, which rarely creates enough revenue to justify the initial cost of building networks. Community leaders knew that wholesale-only models carry more risk because they split an already tight revenue stream. With the change in state law, the community re-evaluated the fiber network plan. 

Rather than abandon the plan, Poulsbo and the PUD adjusted it to use the existing fiber assets. They created the wireless mesh pilot project that went live in Poulsbo in November 2012. They funded the project with a Local Improvement District (LID) loan from the State of Washington. LID works with specific geographic areas; the neighbors in an area collaborate to form each district. The City heads up the project by handling the design, financing, and construction of the improvements, selling bonds for financing. The property owners in the geographic area payback the bonds through special assessments over 10 or 20 years. 

Kitsap PUD Logo

The City and the PUD put up main antennas connecting to its existing fiber for backhaul. Each node, or wireless networking device, connects with at least two other nodes creating a quilt-like series of connections. As the number of participants increase, the reach of the network expands. The mesh network provides symmetrical Wi-Fi connectivity at no charge throughout downtown. Stern described the network in a January 2013 Stop the Cap! article:

“It’s not a typical ‘hot spot’ limited to that business or specific location, but rather like ‘umbrella’ coverage, in that the antennas join together to create seamless coverage of everything and everybody throughout the area,” Stern said, adding network expansion is now inching into residential neighborhoods as well. “It’s really exciting.”

The proposed and altered projects caused telecommunications providers to take a second look at Poulsbo. They have since improved service and lowered rates. Stern describes the project as the epitome of democracy. The community created the network, use it, and care for it. Also from the Stop the Cap! article:

One local resident told the newspaper it was about time.

“The privatization business model has proven a failure,” wrote one reader. “Kitsap PUD needs to offer retail broadband to residents and businesses. These fiber cables are just sitting there doing nothing. There is one at the end of my driveway, but no one will sell me the service. Why would CenturyLink bother when they can continue to get overpaid for very slow speeds. In most places, there aren’t choices.”