County, ToledoTel Broadband Agreement Approved; More Than 800 New Winlock Connections Possible by End of 2022

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Lewis County commissioners on Tuesday approved a finalized telecommunications agreement with ToledoTel that details a 25-year public-private venture to bring broadband internet services to unserved parts of Winlock.

The full scope of the agreement is tentative on the county being awarded $23.5 million from the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Broadband Office. The county and ToledoTel finalized the application alongside the agreement in time for the state’s deadline on Tuesday.

About $135 million in first-round funding will be distributed through the Infrastructure Acceleration Grants program. The county expects to hear back by Jan. 6 on how much will be allocated for the program.

“I think it’s as strong an application we could make, given the amount of time we had to get it together and the real-world constraints. Other people are facing the same real-world constraints, and that’s why I feel like it’s pretty competitive,” said Eric Eisenberg of the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office, who negotiated for Lewis County the terms of the contract with ToledoTel.

The contract stipulates ToledoTel — providing a 10% grant match — would install, supply and maintain a new fiber optic system connecting more than 2,300 homes and businesses in the Winlock area for up to 25 years. Lewis County would own the fiber optic system.

The company would have exclusive access to the infrastructure for up to three years, and after that would have to open the network to competitors at a wholesale rate.

Per the grant requirement, construction must begin in June 2022.

All grant dollars awarded must be contractually obligated by the end of 2024, and the project must be finished in full by the end of 2026.

ToledoTel says it’s confident it can and have at least 800 new connections online by the end of next year.

“The Winlock project is a very large area, and those people have very poor broadband, if at all. I think we’re uniquely poised to succeed in achieving funding through the partnership with Lewis County and ToledoTel,” the company’s Chief Operating Officer Dale Merten told The Chronicle.

Buildout of the project over the next half-decade will roughly double ToledoTel’s customer base, Merten said, though the company has been busy automating its customer service systems and bringing about efficiencies in its systems. The company currently serves a customer base in the Toledo area, and has been eyeing a jump over Interstate 5 to Winlock since the area began seeing rapid expansion and growth.

Merten said it’s very possible they’ll have to hire more people as the expansion proceeds.

Supply chain shortages could have an effect, if this project was to move forward with full funding. Today, Merten said, they have enough fiber to only build about 10 miles of new infrastructure.

“Fiber and fiber related projects have an 18- to 21-month timeline, but there’s a lot of components to this project,” he said, adding later: “Though supply chains may have an impact on this project, there are still many things we can accomplish in the meantime.”

But many of the cities, ports, PUDs, government municipalities and nonprofits that applied for Infrastructure Acceleration Grants will likely be in the same boat and facing the same challenges Lewis County and ToledoTel have moving forward.

Among the several dozen other applicants that also applied for a grant award is the Lewis County Public Utility District, which requested $10.6 million to bring broadband internet out to Randle and Packwood — a project the Board of County Commissioners had previously voiced support for — and a $179,700 request from Lewis County Community Health Services to implement broadband internet for its Community Health Center.

“Definitely excited just to be able to see our constituents get broadband … Since the pandemic, people have needed (it) in order to do business or do school. Not having adequate broadband has definitely proven a major issue,” Commissioner Sean Swope said.

Contract negotiations between Lewis County and the business took about three weeks, Eisenberg said, which Commissioner Lee Grose applauded.

“This whole process is amazingly rapid for any government,” he said.

Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, a Winlock resident and business owner who said she would benefit from the decision, chose to abstain from the discussion and vote on Tuesday over perceptions of conflicted interests. The approved contract still passed 2-0.

Nearly all of the fiber optic installed in Winlock has been proposed for underground installation. Eisenberg said the expectation is that cable integrity will hold up for 25 years at a minimum, though possibly longer.

Lack of access to broadband internet is a major challenge for many Lewis County residents. According to a customer survey, about 77% of customers within the Lewis County PUD’s service area don’t have reliable access to high-speed broadband internet.