Extending Cell and Internet Coverage in the Pacific Northwest

Using funding from federal and local governments, a public-private partnership is boosting Internet and cellphone speeds in some of the nation's most remote corners.

by Elaine Williams, McClatchy News Service / April 14, 2014

You might thank Uncle Sam the next time you text with friends along U.S. Highway 12 between Idaho's Orofino and Kamiah.

That's just one of the places with more robust cellphone service made possible by millions of dollars pumped into the region by federal and local governments. The massive project is boosting Internet and cellphone speeds in some of the nation's most remote corners.

The public-private collaboration involves the Port of Whitman County, Wash., First Step Internet, the Nez Perce Tribe, Inland Cellular and the Port of Clarkston, Wash. Installing a broadband network is in the strategic plan of the Port of Lewiston, Idaho, which has been following closely the expansion of telecommunications in surrounding communities.

Port of Whitman County

Telecommunications companies have choices when they deploy new technologies. They can put innovations into an urban area like Los Angeles, where the cost is defrayed by millions of customers or somewhere rural, like Whitman County, where any upgrade will reach an audience a fraction of the size. In that kind of environment, smaller communities usually lose and get left without basic tools to attract industry.

For more than a decade, the Port of Whitman County has been overcoming that challenge by building its own telecommunications network and leasing it to the private sector.

Today businesses as diverse as AT&T, Century Link and First Step Internet have agreements with the port. "It's been easy for companies to roll out and deploy in our area because they don't have to go back to corporate offices and ask for capitalization," said Joseph Poire, executive director of the Port of Whitman County.

The port's network recently received a $14 million upgrade. The greatest share of the cash infusion -- $12 million -- was courtesy of the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), which was part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to jump start the economy after the recession hit. The remaining $2 million was from the port.

Before the improvement, the Port of Whitman County had a fiber-optic line that connected Moscow, Pullman, Colfax and St. John, about 25 miles northwest of Colfax. Now another leg has been added that runs from Clarkston to Spokane.

The hundreds of miles of fiber-optic line in Whitman County are the fruit of an effort that began in an era when Netflix was in its infancy and most cellphones didn't commonly have texting capabilities or data packages.

In 2001, the port successfully lobbied the Washington state Legislature for a law that enabled ports and public utility districts to install telecommunications infrastructure like fiber-optic cable and sell wholesale to ventures like Internet service providers.

The approach solved a number of issues. Big players can now share the same network instead of building their own, something that greatly reduces their costs. Smaller ventures like First Step Internet aren't squeezed out of the market, because just like their larger competitors, they can create agreements with the port to use the network.

There isn't any competition with the private sector since the port doesn't sell end uses to consumers such as cable, cellphone service or Internet. But the port does net about $425,000 a year from the leases for its network and the figure is expected to grow with the recent updates.

The model the Port of Whitman uses is just as relevant today as it was when it was introduced, making it possible for services like 4G speeds to be offered on cellphones, Poire said.

In addition, the new fiber should decrease the frequency of outages. "A lot of these companies use our cable for route diversity in case one of their lines breaks," Poire said.

First Step Internet

Like the Port of Whitman, First Step Internet received money from BTOP to reach places where high-speed Internet service was inadequate or nonexistent.

It paired $500,000 of its own capital with $2 million of the federal grant to install 551 air miles of high-capacity, wireless microwave broadband connected through 12 towers, said Kevin Owen, president and owner of First Step.

Microwave broadband has speeds, capacity and security similar to fiber-optic cable, only it's significantly less expensive, said Owen, noting that reaching the same places with fiber-optic cable would have cost $35 million.

The service goes to schools, libraries, medical providers and government buildings in Bovill, Cottonwood, Craigmont, Deary, Elk City, Grangeville, Kamiah, Nezperce, Orofino, Potlatch, Troy, Weippe and Winchester. "It's an enhancement that allows us to do the things that consumers want," Owen said.

The next phase involves First Step installing additional technology at its own expense that will boost the speeds of business and residential users. "It has not yet directly benefited everybody who is on the network," Owen said.

A typical First Step residential user now gets one to four megabits per second for downloads. A First Step pilot project is showing the capability to deliver 10 to 25 megabits per second, Owen said.

The pricing will likely be in the range of $30 to $80 per month, but it's too soon to say when and where the service will be introduced, Owen said.

Nez Perce Tribe

It used to be that Danae Wilson paid $80 a month for satellite Internet at her home in rural Nez Perce County.

"The only reason we put ourselves in that position was my husband was finishing school," said Wilson, the manager of the tribe's technology department.

Now Wilson and hundreds of others who live within the boundaries of the Nez Perce Reservation pay $20 a month for service that runs at 3 megabits per second for downloads.

The improvement came from a $1.57 million BTOP grant that was supplemented with about $400,000 in tribal money. The money helped the tribe create a 14-tower network using technology similar to what First Step Internet installed. It paid for seven new towers and additional technology on seven others, including two that belonged to the tribe and five that are owned by Inland Cellular.

The tribe's service is available in Lapwai, Culdesac, Peck, Fraser, Kamiah and Reubens as well as areas surrounding Orofino, Nezperce, Winchester and Craigmont. It was intended to make Internet faster, more affordable, or both.

In addition, the new equipment helps Inland Cellular transmit calls along U.S. 95 between Sweetwater and portions of the Winchester Grade as well as along U.S. Highway 12 between Orofino and Kamiah. Inland Cellular pays the tribe for the service.

The high level of collaboration helped win the government's contribution, Wilson said. "If they didn't have the foresight to see this was a win-win for everyone involved, we couldn't have gone where we did."

The tribe isn't finished. It is systematically identifying small pockets of residences that lack service and establishing local networks with property owners who get free or reduced Internet rates for being hosts, Wilson said.

The hilly geography makes it challenging, Wilson said, and "it won't ever be done, I don't think, just because of our region."

Port of Clarkston

The Port of Clarkston just completed a new leg of fiber-optic cable that serves the area along Port Drive and Port Way south of the Snake River and connects with the Spokane to Clarkston line.

The project cost $200,000 with $50,000 coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's now negotiating with private businesses to provide services on the line. It's also working on another addition that will run to Turning Pointe Industrial Park along Evans Road, which is under construction.

Port of Lewiston

So far the Port of Lewiston has stayed out of telecommunications, but that might change.

"We look at it as filling basic infrastructure needs for our tenants and county residents," said manager David Doeringsfeld.

The port has considered pushing for legislation that would eliminate any ambiguity about its right to install and own fiber optic cable, but didn't pursue that in the most recent legislative session, Doeringsfeld said.

The port now believes the only question is if it has bonding authority for such an investment and could it overcome that hurdle by using other types of funding, Doeringsfeld said.

Another reason the port didn't move forward on that front was other Idaho public entities have become interested in doing the same thing, complicating writing any new law, Doeringsfeld said.

If the port proceeds, it would follow the example of the ports of Clarkston and Whitman, installing the infrastructure and leasing it to service providers.

It would likely link with the Port of Whitman network that runs from Clarkston to Spokane, Doeringsfeld said.

©2014 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)