The Lewis County Public Utility District has long heard the concerns of citizens living in rural and more isolated areas about a lack of adequate internet connection and the negative impact it has on their daily lives.
PUD General Manager Chris Roden and Jeff Baine, the information systems and telecommunications manager, said they have started working on a plan to provide high-speed internet to those citizens with the help of a $50,000 from the Department of Commerce’s Community Economic Revitalization Board to conduct a study to identify the need in the county for better internet service in the form of fiber optic telecommunication lines.
The study is aiming to identify unserved and underserved individuals and areas in the county when it comes to internet connection.
“The study really is about getting the community involved and going out with broadband action teams and doing studies, doing polls to see if people have adequate service, to see if they have service at all,” said Baine. “There is a defined need and we’ll put some technical merit behind what our gut tells us and then we would go out and look at all the different grant sources that are available,” added Roden.
The PUD has already received a lot of input from the community and support from cities and the county. Roden said that he recently heard from a Centralia College student who lives in a smaller community can cannot get good enough internet to complete her assignments at home and must go back into town. Another woman said that she cannot install a home security unit because of the poor internet connection in her area.
Roden mentioned a conference he attended for the National Broadband Association. “They talked about a study they have been doing on the effect of property value in communities that do not have adequate broadband. Homes are worth about 2 percent less and unemployment levels are about a quarter percent higher,” he said.
In many smaller communities, the telecommunication equipment is outdated and slow such as dial-up connection. The PUD’s plan is to install the fiber optic lines and then form a public-private partnership with an internet service provider to provide internet to the customers.
“I’m hoping to have some good partnerships where we can run the backbone and then through a partnership, they can take it the last mile into the home and deliver service to the customer,” said Roden. The PUD is nonprofit and community-owned. They are statutorily prohibited from providing retail service so they must partner with an internet service provider.
“After the study, we’re hoping to have shovel-ready projects to get the ‘highway’ or the large fiber out to these areas so we can then focus on how are we going to work with other providers to get these people service,” said Baine.
In this stage of the process, the PUD is looking to gather as much information and letters of support from the community as possible. The more support they have the better their chance of securing grants to pay for the project. The PUD said they encourage input from the community and want to know about issues people are having with their internet connection.
“It’s important to get the community together and help us through this to make sure their areas are addressed and go from there,” said Baine. The study and accompanying paperwork should be completed by January and a statement of work should be ready by March, according to Baine.