Washington County Plans Broadband Boost With New State Funds

Newly approved state funding will potentially speed the construction of the 81-mile fiber-optic backbone in Skagit County. State legislators approved some $411 million for local broadband projects.

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(TNS) — A historic amount of funding for broadband that was passed by the state Legislature is expected to aid in the expansion of fiber-optic infrastructure in Skagit County, potentially speeding up the delivery of high-speed Internet to areas with limited service.

State legislators on April 24 approved a $6.3 billion capital construction budget for 2021-23, allocating $411 million for local broadband infrastructure projects — more money for broadband than ever before.

SkagitNet — the broadband company jointly operated by the Port of Skagit and the Skagit Public Utility District — leases sections of its fiber-optic backbone to six private Internet service providers.

The planned 81-mile fiber-optic backbone will eventually consist of six segments between Anacortes and Concrete. Five segments are built, including most recently a section that brings fiber into eastern Skagit County, including Sedro-Woolley.

The port is working on building the sixth segment from Hamilton to Concrete. It is also building a segment to run from Rockport south to the Sauk-Suiattle Indian Reservation where Internet access is sparse.

A BOOST IN STATE FUNDING


Port of Skagit Executive Director Patsy Martin said additional state funds could accelerate completion of the backbone and allow SkagitNet to expand further east to Marblemount and to communities such as Alger, Bow and along South Skagit Highway.

"Over the next three to five years, we could get to some of these very small communities sooner rather than later," she said.

According to the capital construction budget, the $411 million for broadband includes:

  • $326 million in Washington State Broadband Office grants for broadband infrastructure projects
  • $60 million for Public Works Board grants and loans to bring broadband to unserved areas
  • $25 million for Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) grants and loans to expand broadband in underserved and rural communities

The port has previously received funding for broadband infrastructure from both the Public Works Board and CERB.

"Having additional funds from ... either of those pots of money will help us grow even further," Martin said.

MORE ACCESS TO FEDERAL FUNDS


President Joe Biden has pledged to spend $100 billion over eight years to build high-speed broadband infrastructure as part of his American Jobs Plan.

New state legislation may make it easier for local entities to access some of this federal funding for broadband projects.

House Bill 1336 gives public entities including PUDs and port districts unrestricted retail authority to provide Internet to end users.

A second bill, Senate Bill 5383, gives ports and PUDs limited retail authority. Under the bill, public entities can provide Internet to end users, but only in unserved areas where residents and businesses lack access to at least 100 Mbps download speeds and 25 Mbps upload speeds, and under certain conditions.

Both bills have passed the Legislature and await Gov. Jay Inslee's signature.

The Port of Skagit's Sara Young testified at a Jan. 27 hearing in support of House Bill 1336.

"Retail authority would be one more tool in the toolbox and would help us have access to federal funding and generate more creative partnerships," she said.

Fourteen hundred signed into the hearing in support of the bill.

Martin said without retail authority, the port is ineligible to access certain federal broadband grant programs.

She said the port will continue to operate a dark fiber, open access network where companies lease the infrastructure to provide Internet service. The port does not intend to start offering Internet service itself.

"At the Port of Skagit, we do infrastructure really well, whether it's Skagit Regional Airport or buildings or land that private businesses build on," Martin said. "We see broadband the same way. It's a piece of infrastructure the private sector can build on. We don't want to compete with the private sector, but enhance what they're doing really well."

As part of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association, the Skagit PUD also supported House Bill 1336, said PUD General Manager George Sidhu.

He agreed that the bill would open up new funding sources to expand fiber infrastructure in Skagit County. As with the port, the PUD has no immediate plans to offer retail Internet service.

"We did strategic planning in 2018, and we specifically talked about telecommunications, and as an agency, we decided that we weren't interested in doing retail broadband, that was not one of our objectives and goals," Sidhu said.

However, having the ability to offer retail Internet service may be useful in the future, he said.

"If it comes to a point where we're unable to leverage the private companies and there's a need, PUDs were created to step into that void," Sidhu said.

ADDRESSING A NEED


The shift to remote work and school during the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the necessity of affordable and reliable high-speed Internet.

Many households continue to have inadequate connections or lack access altogether, according to the results of a statewide broadband survey released in March.

Out of about 33,000 households that participated in the survey, about 6% reported they had no Internet service where they lived.

About 57% reported download speeds under 25 Mbps, the minimum speed needed to support multiple people in a household using the Internet, the report states. About 41% reported upload speeds under 3 Mbps.

According to a map of the survey results, many households in Skagit County — particularly in rural, less populated areas — report having no Internet service or "very low" or "low" download speeds under 25 Mbps.

The one-minute survey can be taken online at broadband.wa.gov.

The Washington State Broadband Office's goal is to provide universal high-speed Internet access by 2024, according to an article from the state Department of Commerce.

High-speed Internet is defined by the Federal Communications Commission as a minimum download speed of 25 Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 3 Mbps.

By 2026, the state aims to achieve universal access to "symmetrical" service of 150 Mbps upload and download speeds.

"At this speed, multiple users can be online at the same time and easily stream content, share large files or participate in video calls," Commerce said in the article.

©2021 the Skagit Valley Herald, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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