‘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.

Comments

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LC payer

The PUD is sorely missing the point. They are wasting money with huge raises and know nothing about a fiber utility or a network. There are many inept dept heads who will run this in the ground. Mark my word, any grant funding will go straight to lavish pay increases. Just say NO to the PUD... Let the private companies run and install this reliably and responsibly. Thank goodness Michael Kelley is the voice of reason at this poorly run place.

Wednesday, August 4
Bill Serrahn

The guvmint will give them $135 million for buggy whips, so why not buy a million nice buggy whips? Seriously, LEO satellite constellations will provide service to the entire planet including rural Lewis County soon, but there are some advantages to building out fiber and they do already have the power poles. Even though your "last mile" private company will have a monopoly on your cable hookup, there will be competition and choices from SpaceX and others.

Thursday, August 5
Mikey likes it.

By the time this gets built out it will be either obsolete from satellite service systems, or in need of hardware upgrading. That's what killed the very same system Tacoma City Light tried to do. After over 300 million spent they sold the whole thing for a major loss after their electricity rate increases were no longer able to keep up with the cost of running the network.

Don't do this so long as private businesses are able to provide the same service. The county would be much better off in being proactive to attract private businesses into our areas of service rather than become an internet system provider.

Thursday, August 5
Philza

It's crazy how some folks commenting on this can't do their own google research.

Starlink satellite internet will be good for rural communities, I 100% agree. However, it comes with it's own downsides and isn't the be all end all of internet service. Starlink internet won't be offered in high density residential spaces (cities). It matches middling broadband speeds (50-150Mbps) while drastically improving ping when compared to old school satellite service. But it will never be as fast as fiber. In addition, Starlink will cost $100 a month plus an up front charge for the dish. $50 dollar fiber really goes to show you how much extra we're paying dealing with Comcast/CenturyLink (for worse service).

In response to LC Payer, everyone's favorite demagogue, it isn't hard to request grant award paperwork PUD receives to fulfill the contract. The money is assigned within those contracts very specifically. If you think it's all going to raises, show the proof. Have an issue with salaries? I invite you to Google comparible positions across the state. I think you'll find we pay our PUD and county employees less than average, especially with IT work.

Thursday, August 5
Gtefiberman

Over 25 years ago, I was a primary contract engineer on gte's fiber to the home project, later renamed 'fios' by verizon after they bought gte out. Verizon, as was typical of bell system thinking (remember, verizon is actually Bell Atlantic) threw away most of the engineering we had developed over 5+ years, and moved forward to implementing their changes around the country, where most of those systems (including the plant in Snohomish county) were later sold to other companies who could barely spell 'fiber', and are now in ruin. Only the systems on the northeast coast remain as Verizon, and are holding on today by their fingernails.

The few pud's that went forward several years ago, despite the telecom promoted state restrictions, seem to have gotten it right somewhat. But the technology has proven that the way we decided to build the network in the late 90's (the two pilot plants were in North Richland Hills TX and Fort Wayne IN) was right, and Verizon was dead wrong.

Look at the systems that have been built and operated successfully in recent years, EPB in Chattanooga, TN and LUS in Lafayette, LA are two. Closer to home, Chelan pud and Mason pud are systems to look at. Don't get locked into any specific contractor, keep the options open. An excellent example is Austin, TX, which today has upwards of 5 providers including two fiber and three docsis cable companies. This in a state with just as bad state laws restricting competition.

So it can be done.

Thursday, August 5