The Lewis County Public Utility District (PUD) has finalized its plan for an ambitious county-wide broadband backbone project — 110 miles of new fiber-optic infrastructure connecting even the most isolated residents with high-speed internet.
The multi-year plan will be reviewed next Tuesday, when individuals are free to provide public comment.
The potentially $130 million project comes at what PUD General Manager Chris Roden has called a “watershed moment”: PUDs across Washington were granted retail authority this year, meaning they can step in and directly connect residents unserved by private companies. Plus, significant state and federal funding is being funneled into broadband to address an increasingly-evident digital divide.
As public and private entities race to secure those dollars, Lewis County PUD wants to ensure that the community’s broadband backbone is owned by the public.
A sprawling fiber network owned by one corporation, said spokesman Willie Painter, is “not in the best interest of Lewis County residents.” Instead, a baseline infrastructure should be publicly owned and used by private companies — or the PUD itself — to provide last-mile retail service, since more options “typically translates into better price competitiveness.”
Not everyone is on the same page about that.
“That’s probably where Willy and I are going to disagree,” County Commissioner Sean Swope told The Chronicle this week. “I’m for the free market, for capitalism … I feel when it’s in the hand of private industry it grows, they advance, they get better.”
A survey conducted by the PUD revealed that more than 77.2% of respondents had internet speeds under the federal standard of broadband despite 97.7% considering the internet an essential utility.
PUD Commissioner Tim Cournyer said the agency now has a “historic opportunity” to address the issue.
“Lewis County’s future economic prosperity, from attracting industry to enabling e-commerce, remote work and technology-based educational opportunities at all levels are being upheld by this broadband problem,” Cournyer said in a statement this month.
But funding challenges persist as the PUD races to secure dollars in the face of increasing lead times and prices on broadband materials.
In May, the PUD requested a “quick allocation” of $1 million from Lewis County’s federal American Rescue Plan funds, the first $7.8 million of which has been received. The hope was to secure equipment before lead times and prices soared out of reach. The local funding could also make the PUD look stronger in already-competitive grant processes.
That request, Painter told The Chronicle this week, is “still on the table.” But after the county parsed out its 2021 chunk of funding, only $500,000 was reserved for broadband. Painter expects the PUD to make a more formal request for those funds.
Back in May, Roden posed to commissioners a key question: whether the community considers broadband essential.
“And if that’s the case, our broader community needs to make those investments,” he said.
Commissioner Lindsey Pollock — who this year pushed the Legislature to grant PUDs more authority to connect communities to the internet — said such an investment would be a nod to East Lewis County, signaling “we see you, and we know you’re having trouble and we’re doing something about it.”
During the since-concluded legislative session, Pollock was joined by a broad coalition of locals who echoed the sentiment that the private telecommunications sector had a chance to reach rural communities, and have so far fallen short. Some of the region’s state lawmakers disagreed.
Swope also expressed skepticism with the PUD’s million-dollar request.
“I have an issue with public entity cutting into private business,” he said back in May.
For his approval, the first-term commissioner said he would need assurance that private companies would be allowed to hook up to the broadband backbone instead of the PUD trying to “undercut” local industry.
“The private industry represents families in our community,” he added.
Indeed, the question of whether the PUD will provide direct retail service to residents — like they do for electricity — is a lingering one.
And it’s one “quite frankly, that the PUD board of commissioners needs to look at as well,” Painter said.
The industry is changing, Roden told the Chronicle earlier this year, “and that is unsettling for some people.
“We’re not in the business to push anybody out or take over. All we’re after is to help deploy broadband to our community.”
After the PUD made their request this year, ToledoTel CEO Dale Merten also provided insight to the county commissioners.
When asked by Swope what the private company could do with the same $1 million, Merten said it would likely pick up 2,600 homes in the Winlock area.
“But would I go out to Packwood? No,” he said, adding later: “it all boils back down to the money.”
With or without the fast cash to procure increasingly-expensive supplies, the project will likely take several years. Cournyer has emphasized the desire to rely on grant funding rather than ratepayers.
With a plan in hand, who might expect to get broadband first? First in line is likely to be the Pe Ell area, since a grant to fund broadband expansion there is already in the hopper. But the communities in desperate need of connection, as Roden has put it, “are too many to list.”