(TNS) — Finding ways to extend high-speed broadband capabilities to rural and underserved communities is "the economic development challenge of our time," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday.
Speaking to a group of local officials and regional economic development managers in Pomeroy, Wash., Inslee said high-speed connectivity is essential to keeping rural communities strong. It provides the infrastructure they need for education opportunities and medical service, and allows small-town businesses to find customers, compete and create jobs.
"It opens so many doors," he said. "Access to broadband is the single most important economic development tool in our toolkit right now, and the most necessary to our state."
Inslee said he was encouraged by steps the Washington Legislature took earlier this year to begin addressing the issue — including its approval of Pomeroy Rep. Mary Dye's bill that allows all port districts in the state to invest in open-access fiber-optic networks to serve their communities.
Dye, who attended Wednesday's meeting, has worked on this issue for at least three years. When she began looking for ways to extend high-speed internet services to small communities, she said, the Port of Whitman County proved to be the most effective, sustainable model.
"Now we're trying to replicate that model statewide," Dye said.
The state Legislature gave certain ports and public utility districts authority to invest in telecommunications networks in 2000. Joe Poire, executive director of the Port of Whitman, said his commissioners were the only ones to take advantage of the opportunity.
Using $12 million in federal stimulus funding and $1.8 million in port revenue, the Port of Whitman began building a "dark fiber" network in 2011. The network now extends for 240 miles across six counties and two states, Poire said, and provides broadband capabilities to about 30 communities.
Private internet providers and telecommunications firms lease the fiber-optic network from the port and use it to serve their retail customers. That's how the port eventually will make a return on its investment.
"We have 14 companies riding on our network right now," he said.
Installing the dark fiber network was a key factor in bringing them to the table, Poire said. In most rural communities, there isn't enough demand to justify building a private fiber-optic network. However, if private firms only have to build the "last mile" - the short connection between the port network and the end customer - it makes more financial sense for them to enter the market.
It takes an 18- to 24-month return on investment before a private developer is willing to invest in building their own fiber-optic network, he said. The Port of Whitman, by contrast, "is willing to take a 10- to 12-year return."
Dye's bill gives other ports around the state the opportunity to make similar investments. She likened the situation to a highway system - private developers may not be willing to build their own road to Pomeroy or even Pullman, but they're willing to use an open-access highway to reach customers.
"It gives many companies an opportunity to provide service without having to make a substantial (up-front) investment," she said.
In addition to approving Dye's bill, Inslee noted that the Legislature also appropriated $10 million for the Community Economic Revitalization Board so it could provide seed money to help other port districts, cities and counties pursue similar broadband infrastructure opportunities.
"I'm encouraged by what I've seen here and by the local leadership that's being displayed," Inslee said. "But I want to keep the ball rolling."
That could entail additional public funding.
"What we've found in the history of our state is that public investment in basic infrastructure, when the private market hasn't filled a need, can be very productive," he said. "It worked with our hydroelectric system, with transportation, with (the internet itself), which started with a public investment. A small public investment can leverage private investment, to the benefit of all."
The Pomeroy session was the first of several meetings the governor has scheduled around the state this week to focus on broadband issues. He also met with Washington State University officials in Pullman, and toured WSU's Clean Technologies Program.
©2018 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.