In Rural Washington, High-Speed Internet Faces Hurdles

Residents, lawmakers and service providers gathered to discuss the myriad problems impeding rural Internet service in Lewis County last week.

by Alex Brown, The Chronicle / May 7, 2018
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(TNS) — Bringing broadband Internet to rural Lewis County, Wash., won’t be easy, said government officials and telecommunications providers who gathered to discuss the issue Friday in Chehalis — but it is essential.

“You can always tell when the kids are starting to do their homework, because the Internet crashes,” said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

Orcutt said he recently toured a new computer lab at a school in Napavine.

“This is great, but how do they continue that learning when they get home if they don’t have rural broadband?” he said.

It also hinders small businesses.

“When I hear that people can’t get online, that means they can’t connect with customers, they can’t take orders,” Orcutt said. “They can’t order the types of things they need to run their business.”

Orcutt and others heard from frustrated rural residents who said the lack of access in their communities is a major issue. All were gathered at the Lewis County Commission chambers as part of the monthly Lewis County mayors’ meeting.

The officials offered potential solutions, such as grants and loans, that could speed up the pace of expanding broadband past the county’s most populated areas.

A federal omnibus funding bill passed in March includes $600 million for rural broadband, said Kirk Pearson, the Washington state director of rural development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pearson is a former state senator.

“There are a number of grants you all need to read about and apply for,” he said.

Pearson’s USDA counterpart, general field representative Steve Coyner, told attendees about Community Connect Grants, which can help areas with speeds of less than 10 megabits per second expand access. He urged local entities to apply.

“We cannot just go give money to an area that does not have broadband,” he said. “Somebody has to actually apply for that grant.”

A resident from Randle at the meeting wondered how areas that lack a local government can make bids for grant money, without hoping a telecom provider will do so on their behalf. Randle has no city council, and is represented by the Board of Lewis County Commissioners as an unincorporated area.

“We’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to partner up,” said Lewis County Commissioner Gary Stamper, who represents District 3 on the rural eastern side of the county. “I don’t have the blueprint. … I’m hoping we can come up with a plan.”

Onalaska resident Harry Bhagwandin noted that, while also unincorporated, the community had worked with TDS to apply for a grant. Still, he said, the various funding opportunities available to rural areas do not meet the need.

“It’s pretty clear what the roadblock is. It’s cash,” he said. “Here’s the deal. Get us some more money, and let’s get this problem solved.”

John Flanagan, a policy advisor for Gov. Jay Inslee, noted the expense of building the infrastructure, saying each mile of fiber optic expansion costs $50,000 to 75,000.

Inslee is working to establish a statewide broadband office and secure the $100 million or so it will take to bring broadband across the state. His goal is a hub-and-spoke model that brings fast Internet to a hospital or school, then branches out to individual users.

Efforts to expand broadband in central Lewis County have proven to cost 50 percent more than other areas, added TDS director of network engineering and construction Larry Boehm, coming to more than $10,000 per customer.

“It take a long time, it takes a lot of money,” he said, adding that having shovel-ready projects is key to securing grant funds. “Applying is one thing. Being ready when that application happens is a big deal.”

After an Onalaska resident complained that he was paying for high-speed Internet that is far from fast, Boehm acknowledged the issue and said it’s being worked on. He was hopeful it will be resolved before school starts up again in the fall.

“Way too many customers were sold to,” he said. “It just outgrew itself.”

Residents also heard from Janea Delk, program director and tribal liaison for the state Community Economic Revitalization Board. CERB also offers broadband loans and grants, and is holding workshops around the state on the issue. Lewis County Commissioner Edna Fund asked her to add a workshop in Lewis County to advise different communities about how to best proceed.

“Absolutely,” Delk responded. “You coming to the table and talking about a specific project in a specific community is really helping us put the puzzle together.”

Flanagan added that locals can help by lobbying state legislators for more broadband funding, as well pushing the Federal Communications Commission to set aside unused TV channels for “White Space” broadband broadcasting.

“If you need us in the Legislature to testify, we’ll be there en bloc,” said Fund.

Pearson noted that other grants are available from the U.S. Department of Transportation, and specific funding is set aside elsewhere for telemedicine. He urged local leaders and residents to follow up with him on the issues that are keeping them from expanding broadband.

“We have all the players here,” he said. “I want you to tell me — what are the roadblocks keeping you from this?”

Others offered more near-term ideas to help residents as they wait for full broadband expansion. Ron Averill, a former county commissioner, suggested bolstering broadband at a hub, using Centralia College as a model, that would at least give locals an access point within 1 to 5 miles.

“We ought to be looking at that as an interim measure,” he said.

Bhagwandin suggested the county assemble a list of libraries, coffee shops and other institutions with reliably fast access. Fund noted that library Internet access is available 24/7, “if you sit outside in your car, as I’ve done.”

©2018 The Chronicle (Centralia, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.