STATE GRANT: $135 Million in First-Round Funding to Be Distributed to Governments, Tribes, Nonprofits
The Lewis County Board of Commissioners is moving forward with a proposal from ToledoTel to secure grant funding through the Washington State Broadband Office to build out fiber optic networking connections to more than 2,300 homes and businesses in the Winlock area.
The Toledo-based telecommunications company beat out two other proposals submitted by Comcast and the Lewis County Public Utility District. The two businesses and utility met with the board Tuesday to pitch their concepts, and the two-member commission voted Wednesday morning to move forward with ToledoTel’s proposal.
“The selection of the ToledoTel project is great for citizens to get that high-speed internet option in the near future,” Commissioner Sean Swope said in a statement. “The discussion around broadband in our county is far from over, and we are excited to take these steps with a proven local company.”
Dale Merten, chief operating officer at ToledoTel, said the goal of the project is to expand its already-existing broadband network of 200 customers in the Grand Prairie and downtown Winlock area and bring that infrastructure “deep throughout the Winlock area.”
“Not just downtown, but do exactly the same thing we did in Toledo. We’re going to go clear to the west side until we run out of customers, down south to Vader and up north to Napavine,” Merten said.
Aside from 3 miles, almost all of the project would be buried fiber cable, Merten said. The cost to connect houses and structures to the network would be free of charge and include a month of free service. The project would provide households 10 gigabits of symmetrical internet speed.
The county on Sept. 21 put out a broad request for broadband project proposals that would “address the underserved and unserved areas of the county, leveraging ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds available through the county, state and federal agencies.”
County staff ultimately refocused their search on the request for proposals after receiving short notice that the Washington State Broadband Office would accept grant applications for broadband projects with an Oct. 18 deadline for pre application.
These grants, funded through the state’s Infrastructure Acceleration Grants program, are expected to range between $10,000 and $250,000, according to a news release from the Washington state Department of Commerce, and pay out a total $135 million in its first round of funding.
ToledoTel estimates the total cost of its project will be $22.3 million. The company would provide 10% matching funds to the project through this proposed project. Merten said he expects they should be able to have costs obligated by 2024 and the project built out by the 2026 deadline laid out by the state.
“ToledoTel has the staff, resources and experience to immediately begin this network expansion today,” read Merten’s executive summary within the application. “We have fiber, vaults, conduit supplies and electronics in stock. Although supply chain issues will have an impact on this project, we have all essential supplies needed to begin construction and move forward as we address lead time obstacles. Fiber optic cable currently has lead times of 18 to 20 months.”
With more than 1,800 broadband subscribers currently, this project could theoretically double the company’s servicing network over the next five years. The project would cover 250 miles of fiber construction within the Winlock area.
If the grant is awarded, ToledoTel hopes to break ground on the project sometime later this year and have about 820 new customers connected by the end of 2022.
Included in its application to Lewis County, the company included written testimony from Toledo and Winlock school districts, as well as a letter of support from Lewis County Public Utility District No. 1.
Internet service providers may retain exclusive rights to their network construction for a maximum of three years, according to language in the Infrastructure Acceleration Grant application, but afterwards must be open access for the remainder of its life.
That stipulation is what led county commissioners away from Comcast’s project, which proposed building out 133 miles of exclusive network infrastructure in the Adna area. Their project, estimated to cost $19.1 million, would pass 1,632 homes with half aerial, half underground broadband line.
Comcast, which services more than 2.7 million residential and business customers in Washington state, did propose a 20% match for their project.
Instead of proposing a single project, Lewis County PUD instead pitched the county on a collaborative approach to addressing lack of broadband servicing in the county.
The utility is developing a community-wide broadband deployment plan, which includes routing design for 17 identified service districts within its coverage area. Instead of any one project, the utility proposed the county engage with them in a bilateral agreement that would leverage the two governments’ expertise, said Public Affairs Manager Willie Painter.
Costs for each of the 17 districts range from around $2 million to more than $11 million, but would pass nearly 29,000 households and service thousands of miles of roadway.
The PUD currently has 88 miles of fiber line installed within its service territory.
ToledoTel is expected to meet with county staff and commissioners at their meeting Monday to discuss the proposal. A contract will be negotiated with the company over the next month, said Budget Manager Becky Butler.
“I would say, at this point in time, we want to move forward realizing that we have a lot of work to do between now and especially Nov. 29,” when the full application is due, Commissioner Lindsey Pollock said.