Chronicle Special Report — ‘Spanning the Digital Divide’: Finding Connection in a Rural Community

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When Cindy Samco and Eric Hayes were looking to relocate two years ago, they were looking for connection.

They wanted a rural community with room for a small homestead where they could connect with their community. And as mobile content developers who have worked from home for the last 10 years, they also needed a reliable and fast internet connection.

They found it in Toledo.

“We absolutely love Toledo as a community,” Samco said. “We believe it was real estate karma.”

Toledo is an example of how investing in broadband is worth more than just bandwidth. In this town of nearly 800, investment and innovative thinking on the part of the small, family-owned Local Exchange Carrier ToledoTel has brought broadband coverage to Toledo that rivals large, metropolitan areas. Russ Elliott, director of the State Broadband Office for the Washington State Department of Commerce, said Toledo is a rare example of how to bring broadband to a community. 

“Very few people in the state have this luxury,” Elliott said. “Toledo is very fortunate to have what it has.”

Toledo’s broadband investment starts with ToledoTel. Founded in 1910 as Home Telephone Company, today ToledoTel has about 2,000 total customers in a 388-square-mile coverage area. The company was among the first to offer both dial up and digital subscriber line (DSL) internet when they were new technologies. In 1995, the company adopted a strategic vision to offer fiber-optic broadband. Some of the first fiber was available in 2005 and then fiber was laid to the entire “864” service area between 2010-2015, making Toledo Washington’s first 100 percent gigabit Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) community.

“We’ve been able to follow right along with the demands for bandwidth that people made,” said Phil Cappalonga, chief financial officer for ToledoTel. “I’m very happy we made the decisions we made.”

In comparison, Senate Bill 5511 that passed in 2019 created a statewide goal of having all Washington businesses and residences have access to at least one provider of broadband with download speeds of 150 megabits by 2028. One gigabit equals 1,000 megabits. Elliott explained that an estimated 885,000 Washington homes do not have access to internet fiber and while it was once thought that all Washingtonians had access to internet speeds of at least 25 Mbps, that number may not be accurate since carriers’ service speeds are listed as “up to” speeds, which can dip during usage. The Department of Commerce is currently asking consumers to take a broadband access and quality survey on their website to help get a better idea what the actual service numbers are statewide.

“What we are seeing in the data so far is service that is overstated in terms of connection and quality,” Elliott said.

Dale Merten, chief operating officer for ToledoTel explained fiber broadband was a logical choice because it has a range of 40 miles at 1 gigabyte and the infrastructure is highly flexible, easy to upgrade and long lasting. Dial- up is reliant on phone lines and electricity, which can cause problems during a natural disaster as well as customers having a home phone line. And DSL has an effective range of only about 5 miles, sometimes up to 10 if you’re in a good location. 

But cost is a major barrier to bringing fiber broadband to rural communities, noted Cappalonga.  He explained that laying the broadband fiber costs about $50,000 per mile, so being able to apply for low rate loans through the federal government has been the reason ToledoTel has been able to complete its build out.

“It costs a lot to put it in the ground and in rural areas, houses are spaced apart,” Cappalonga said. “It’s hard to recoup the initial investment when you’re going one mile for two houses.”

Elliott estimates it would cost somewhere between $3-$4 billion to outfit the entire state with fiber in the same manner as Toledo. But he sees the investment as essential because having consistently high upload and download speeds are going to become more necessary as more people work from home, school from home, use cloud computing and access telehealth. Along with the price tag for fiber comes the benefit of a system with unknown limits, whereas some areas of the state are currently being served by systems that required major monetary investments but are already in need of upgrades

“If you have access to building structure that is basically limitless, why wouldn’t you use it?” Elliott said. “We should not be spending money on five-year projects.”

It is community connections that has pushed ToledoTel forward in investing in fiber, Merten said. He noted the company, led for three generations by the Ramsey family, has always held a value of being innovative, and one of the reasons is they are a small, community-based business.

“We live in a small, rural community. We see our customers in town or at the grocery store and if they have service that is inadequate, you bet we’re going to hear about it,” Merten said. 

Broadband availability in Toledo has created opportunities for people such as Samco and Hayes to have not only the community they desire but the jobs they want. Prior to moving to Toledo two years ago, the couple had lived in Tigard, Oregon for 17 years and worked from home as mobile content developers for 10. They had purposefully chosen a house in Tigard as far out into the urban growth area as they could be, but watched urban sprawl surround and swallow their rural setting. When they decided it was finally time to move, they were looking to return to a more rural setting, but now their work demanded fast and reliable internet. Samco said they Googled “good internet in Western Washington” and one of the first hits was Toledo.

“We were like ‘where’s Toledo?’” Samco recalled with a laugh.

Samco said when they began looking for a home in Southwest Washington, they learned that while some larger companies offer high-speed internet in Lewis County, the fine print is networks in some areas are saturated and capped on customers. This means that even though a home for sale may currently have internet service, there is no guarantee that a new homeowner will be able to access the same level of service as the previous owner. They even learned of real estate deals being struck that include the seller refraining from disconnecting internet service to the residence so that the new owner will not be locked out. Elliott noted that homes with access to reliable internet typically sell for 5-8 percent higher than comparable homes with slower or less reliable connections.

“People do look for homes that have better connections,” Elliott said.

On a chance drive through Toledo, Samco and Hayes found a home in the downtown core of Toledo, where they typically spend their mornings working on digital content and afternoons homesteading. You could throw a stone from their backyard garden and land it at Donna’s Place, where Samco has helped with website that includes a real-time tap list through their app, Digital Pour. They walk every day, sometimes to the nearby Steamboat Landing for the Toledo Thursday Market, which has also benefited from Samco’s web design skills. Hayes said the ability to have the internet they need in an area in which they want to be means they have the ability to pitch in to make their community grow stronger more so than if they had to commute to a job someplace else.

“If we can get self-sufficient and be able to roll with some of the punches, we’re happier. And we have the ability to help our neighbors,” Hayes said.

Broadband has become a selling point for the city of Toledo for many like Samco and Hayes and Russell Ramsey, president and chief executive officer of ToledoTel, said he wonders how fast the city is likely to grow now that more people are working and schooling from home because of COVID-19. Data seems to suggest the pandemic may spur what is being called an “urban flight” in the next few years of residents in more highly populated areas looking to move to suburbs and rural areas.

“It’s going to be interesting to see if we see more of an uptick in the future,” Ramsey said. “If you can’t go to the museums and the theaters in the city, what’s the point of being in the city?”

Hayes is a member of the Toledo planning commission, which is in the midst of creating its most recent comprehensive plan. Hayes said he wonders if the population predictions in the document may already be outdated if urban flight theories come true.

Even without urban flight, the demand for broadband is expected to continue to rise as our world and technology changes. Ramsey said the possibility of his customers facing some sort of natural disaster or health crisis such as the current COVID-19 pandemic, that forced large numbers of people to stay home, was something he had thought of a great deal. If you have parents working from home, kids schooling from home and families seeking indoor entertainment such as streaming services, would the system be able to handle so much demand at once?

“We were probably one of the only communities in Washington where when the time came here and the kids were going to have to go home, it was fine,” Ramsey said. “We were in the right position as a community to deal with Zoom.”

When Toledo schools were closed in March, Merten said he contacted Chris Rust, superintendent of the Toledo School District, and asked for a list of all addresses associated with student households. ToledoTel automatically bumped all households within their service area up to a minimum 100 megabytes of service for no additional charge. For Toledo School District families without internet service and within ToledoTel service area, including into Winlock, they were offered free hook ups to the fiber network.

“They made what we did last spring possible,” Rust said. “We would have been dead in the water without them.”

That free service ended with the 2019-2020 school year but Merten said all but six of those families chose to keep that service after using it.

“COVID has really proven how important broadband is to people,” Merten said. 

Rust said the long-term goal of the Toledo School District is to get every family reliable internet connection and every student a Chromebook, not just for this year but for the foreseeable future. He said they have noticed many positive outcomes from COVID-19 social distancing they intend to keep going even after COVID-19 is no longer the dire threat it is. For example, Rust said they will likely continue Individualize Education Program (IEP) meetings with parents via Zoom, since it means parents do not have to take off work or procure childcare to attend. 

Rust joked that adapting to Zoom classrooms this year may also have essentially “killed the snow day.” In the future, any event from severe weather to power outages to virus outbreaks that make in-person schooling impossible can be mitigated by quickly pivoting to asynchronous learning schedules. And if a staff member or student is contagious or too ill to be in the school building, but not ill enough to sit at a computer, they can still participate in the school day.

“Let’s say we’re back in a hybrid model, the kids in the building will still be using Google Classroom for all their lessons so if we have to flip anybody or everybody to home learning, it’s not a big deal,” Rust said. “And in a perfect world, it can go the other way as well.”

Rust said he believes the most important factor in providing those capabilities is continuing the push to get internet to all of his students. Some families of children attending the Toledo School District do not live within the ToledoTel coverage area and about 80-100 students out of 762 are either without internet or that have unreliable service. Each family’s unique situation has to be solved on an individual basis, including collecting hot spots from the many other carriers in the area and procuring grant money to help expand access to ToledoTel’s network.

“Not having internet access at their home is like not having running water at home,” Rust said. 

If there’s one thing 2020 could teach us, it’s that discussions about broadband are no longer just for those working in the technology sector, said Toledo resident Ethan Siegel.

“We for too long have treated the internet as a luxury and when you look at the modern world, it’s not a luxury,” Siegel said. “If you went to someone in the 1910s, having a car or a radio would be a luxury but along the way these became necessities. The same thing has happened with the internet. Now it’s a necessity. It’s a part of almost every aspect of our life.”

Siegel and his partner moved to Toledo in 2014, after previously living in Portland for six years. A theoretical astrophysicist, Siegel, was a professor at University of Portland and Lewis & Clark College but the couple decided they wanted to seek a home in less urban setting.

“We wanted something quieter and more rural,” Siegel said. “I wanted dark, beautiful night skies.”

They looked throughout the Pacific Northwest for a place and finally decided on Toledo. The top factor in their decision-making process was Toledo’s plans for fiber optic broadband.

“When we found out we could have just as good of internet in a rural, tiny town as a major city, that changed the equation,” Siegel said.

For about a year after moving to Toledo, Siegel continued to commute to his professorships but said when broadband finally reached their home, he was able to change his work to match the lifestyle he had been looking for in Toledo. Siegel is now self-employed, most often writing for his publication “It Starts With a Bang”, which is featured on several online publications including “Forbes.” Siegel said having fast, reliable and highly responsive internet service has not only allowed him to work from home but he thinks it has made a difference in the trajectory of the community of Toledo as a whole, especially when it came to shut downs related to COVID-19 this year.

“It’s made the Toledo community far more resilient than neighboring communities,” Siegel said. “I think one of the goals of our county and state should be to provide rural communities with broadband. This is as much an issue as power at this point.”

The same private and public partnerships that have allowed ToledoTel to advance its infrastructure should also be what other communities look to when pursuing broadband build-out, said Shelley Westall, broadband program director for the Washington Public Works Board. In October, the board awarded $17.7 million in grants to projects aimed at bringing broadband to rural and unserved areas. 

“This problem can’t be solved just by the state,” Westall said. “It has to be solved by the federal government, state and private partners.”

Elliott noted expanding broadband in rural communities is a challenge but noted that Lewis County has the benefit of an existing robust fiber-optic line running along U.S. Highway 12. Branching off that line could easily connect communities that are currently in need of such services. But the key is communities getting involved in the discussion.  

“It’s a matter of communities along asking the right questions and saying ‘that’s what we want. We want that connectivity,’” Elliott said. 

It has been a trend in smaller, more rural areas such as Lewis County that self-sufficiency is key to getting the same opportunities as larger areas, Ramsey said. He likened today’s broadband needs to the introduction of electricity utilities in communities. Larger power companies were more interested in providing services to large cities where there were large numbers of customers clustered closely together. So smaller communities had to band together to create public utility districts. It is partnerships with the Lewis County PUD have also allowed ToledoTel to expand to provide broadband for business customers outside its normal coverage area including downtown Winlock, Chehalis, Morton and a few customers in Onalaska. It is possible, such partnerships could hold the key to expanding broadband to those who need it most in Southwest Washington, he noted.

“When it comes to rural America, if you sit around and wait for corporate America to come up with a solution, you’re probably going to be waiting a long time,” Ramsey said.

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