‘Incredibly Well Positioned’: Lewis County PUD Optimistic About Expansive Broadband Plan

Building Out: Packwood to Pe Ell to Be Connected in 17-Zone Project

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On a color-coded map, the Lewis County Public Utility District’s plan might appear simple: 17 squiggly zones where new broadband infrastructure will help residents watch Netflix, see a doctor and go to virtual class.

The PUD laid out its ambitious proposal Tuesday, and while the sprawling broadband backbone will be anything but easy to complete, there was a sense that the entity is well-positioned to obtain necessary grant funding to make high-speed internet a reality for even rural areas.

There’s two components to most grant applications, said PUD spokesman Willie Painter: justification of need and technical parameters of the project.

“Unlike many other organizations around the state that are also interested in going after some grant dollars, we have both of those critical grant application components pretty much all ready to go,” Painter said.

Lewis County’s PUD is “incredibly well positioned” in that regard, agreed Chris Walker, Northwest Open Access Network’s (NoaNet) telecommunications director, who presented the PUD’s plan this week.

Community need will be illustrated, Walker pointed out, by the often-cited PUD survey in which the majority of Lewis County respondents reported inadequate internet service, despite considering it essential.

The proposed broadband backbone is split into 17 units, Walker said, to allow for flexibility. Smaller chunks are more likely to be covered by individual grants. And fiber-optic cables will make the network “future proof,” both in terms of new customers and increased internet usage.

The PUD expects astronomical customer growth in the future.

“Dare I say explosive growth in terms of customers moving into our service territory,” said PUD General Manager Chris Roden.

And there’s a sense that those individuals will increasingly think of broadband as a utility — even a “right,” Walker said.

He touched on what many have framed as a key question around the public sector getting more involved in the internet: is broadband an essential utility?

“In your county, it’s an absolute overwhelming ‘yes,’” he said. “When I think about broadband, when I think about internet, and I compare it to the other utilities, it’s the second most used utility in my daily life.”

Painter also spoke to a concern echoed by skeptics this year that PUDs may cut into private industry and overbuild.

Many grants, he said, “have a limitation or a restriction on ensuring that there will not be overbuild.

“And what that means is that they make sure that we as an applicant do our due diligence to make sure we are not building broadband infrastructure in an area where broadband infrastructure already exists,” Painter said.

For Dale Merten, Chief Operating Officer of private telecommunications company ToledoTel, the PUD taking charge of new broadband infrastructure doesn’t come with much uneasiness. New state funding is funneling into PUDs anyway, he said, “so regardless of anybody’s opinions … that’s just the way things are going.

“I don’t have a problem with it, really.”

ToledoTel certainly wants to be a last-mile retail provider using the PUD’s new infrastructure, Merten said. And although no written agreement exists to ensure that will happen, Merten told The Chronicle he’s confident it will come to fruition.

The PUD’s 17-zone broadband backbone could connect nearly 29,000 units, the vast majority being residential. Even if ToledoTel provides retail service to a fraction of those, it’ll be far more than approximately 2,200 premises currently served by the company.

ToledoTel and the county’s PUD have a unique relationship, Merten said, with ToledoTel even performing some maintenance for the PUD.

“But the other small telecommunication companies in the state of Washington don’t have relationships like that. And their PUDs and ports are fierce competitors, and they have reservations of overbuilding,” Merten said, adding that some of those fears are justified.

The PUD estimated residential service connected to their fiber network to cost $49 per month, with a startup cost of $100. And the entity says construction will be funded by grants, not through customers’ existing utility bills.

Even still, Tuesday’s meeting came against the backdrop of newly-elected commissioner Michael Kelly once again pushing against any potential rate increases.

A staff presentation on the PUD’s budget process earlier that morning, Kelly contended, was “missing a couple things” — mainly, an analysis of what cutbacks would eliminate the need to raise rates.

But while the PUD has characterized itself as in good financial shape, Roden also pointed to “very aggressive price growth” in materials paired with inflation and customer base growth.