Officials Discuss How to Connect Rural Idaho Communities

Leveraging the county’s fiber-optic infrastructure is one key piece of the broadband puzzle, but officials in Whitman County said there is still a need for investment.

by Scott Jackson, Moscow-Pullman Daily News / January 19, 2018
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(TNS) — High-speed internet often leaves rural communities behind, but Port of Whitman County, Idaho, Chief Operating Officer Kara Riebold said her organization is working to change that.

In a presentation to the Pullman League of Women Voters on Thursday, Riebold said the Washington Legislature in 2001 gave rural port districts the authority to build telecommunications infrastructure. The move was made partially to bring fiber-optic capabilities to areas that big internet service providers may overlook, Riebold said.

"One study identified that there's a $2 billion need in investment just to make broadband available to all of the United States," Riebold said. "The rate that this could happen is not a rate that businesses can sit around and wait for."

Riebold said ports can build this infrastructure within and outside the district for the purposes of serving the district and to lease its use to ISPs.

"The Port of Whitman County is not an internet provider, we don't sell to an end user," Riebold said. "What we have done is built this kind of highway of fiber-optic cables that the larger telecommunications companies can lease from us."

Riebold said the port chose to get into the fiber-optic internet business for three reasons, including to promote economic development in Whitman County, to support community infrastructure and to increase competition between ISPs. She said without the cost of physically building the network, smaller ISPs will have a more level playing field with larger providers. This benefits local businesses by supplying them with more options, she said.

"If they're not getting the service they need from one company, then another company can provide that same service over a fiber network," Riebold said.

Riebold said PWC initially set out to provide internet to libraries, schools and hospitals.

"We started out with a line that connected Washington State University to the University of Idaho," Riebold said.

After this initial project, Riebold said, PWC took over stewardship of WSU's existing fiber network and built out infrastructure within its own industrial park.

"Then, over the next 10 years, we built out through the Pullman community," Riebold said. "These builds were based on business needs as well as community needs."

Next, Riebold said, they began working with cell towers and built redundancies in Pullman to help mitigate against outages. By 2008, she said, they began building a line stretching from Colfax to Spokane.

"We connected all the way to Spokane so that we could bring in the bigger carriers," Riebold said. "Just having the fiber from my home to your home wouldn't do anything, it has to connect back to somewhere else."

Riebold said PWC has a variety of projects in motion, and one compelling step forward will be making fiber available for homes. She said currently smaller ISPs like St. John Cable are engaged in projects to connect residences in smaller communities like Colfax, but it will be a significant undertaking for PWC to provide home service in places like Pullman.

"When we build fiber to home, we will not make back that money. It will be an investment," Riebold said. "But we can push that out and wait that long for it to pay itself off."

©2018 the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (Moscow, Idaho)  by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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