The Lewis County PUD Board of Commissioners is set to review a final community-wide broadband network design and deployment plan at its regular meeting held at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday, August 3rd. The plan, commissioned by the PUD, is months in the making following hundreds of calls from community members asking the PUD to help address the lack of broadband internet access in Lewis County.

Lack of Broadband Internet Access in the Community

Very shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began in the spring of 2020 when workplaces and schools were transitioning to remote operations, many Lewis County residents found themselves in a challenging position due to a lack of sufficient internet speeds at home. “Several phone calls came in every week from distraught residents that they couldn’t work from home or their children couldn’t participate in a remote learning environment because they didn’t have fast enough internet speeds,” said Willie Painter, Public Affairs Manager for Lewis County PUD. What the PUD started to learn through these phone calls, and later confirmed through a community-wide broadband survey conducted in April 2020 that included a speed test, was that a majority of PUD customers had one or fewer internet service providers that offered internet in their area, and the internet speeds they had were generally below the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband, which is 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. “Many PUD customers called us thinking that the PUD could provide broadband internet, but when I informed them that state law didn’t allow public utility districts to provide retail internet, the typical reaction I received was frustration that their only option was private internet service providers and yet few, if any, private internet service providers served their area,” said Painter.

The community-wide broadband survey, which was funded by a grant to the PUD from the Washington State Community Economic Revitalization Board and locally promoted by a diverse group of Lewis County citizens, helped to confirm what many in the community already knew: Internet at broadband speeds was only available to a small minority of county residents. The survey, which was taken by over 3,300 PUD customers, showed that 77.2% of respondents had internet speeds that don’t meet the definition of broadband. Furthermore, a staggering 97.7% of respondents indicated that they believed that the Internet is an essential utility. “Other than a select few areas of the county that have private broadband providers that offer their customers high internet speeds, the survey results provided critical data that showed the dire conditions that the majority of PUD customers face with insufficient access,” said Jeff Baine, Lewis County PUD’s Information Systems and Telecommunications Manager. Baine led the survey effort, launched a local broadband action team called the “Broadband Champions” which promoted the survey, and has facilitated the subsequent work to design a broadband infrastructure deployment for the entire PUD service territory.

Solving the Broadband Internet Access Problem

Following the broadband survey, the PUD knew that the next logical step was to explore what a broadband infrastructure deployment throughout its service territory would require. The PUD partnered with Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), a non-profit consortium specializing in community-based broadband deployment, to help with the survey and then subsequently on the community-wide network design and deployment plan. “The survey showed us that the problem was big, so we needed to plan a solution that was equally big and up to the task,” said Baine. Beginning in late 2020 and now nearly completed, the PUD has worked with NoaNet to develop a fiber-to-the-home network design and deployment plan that includes the necessary infrastructure needed and estimated construction costs to get broadband internet access to PUD customers. The “fiber” in fiber-to-the-home refers to fiber optic cable, a time-tested and proven technology that transmits data at the speed of light.

“In order to accomplish this community-wide network design to serve many of the PUD’s 33,000 customers, we determined it made sense to divide the entire PUD service territory into 17 individual service zones that utilized the PUD’s existing network of electric power poles from which to string fiber optic cable,” said Baine. The poles are already often used by private telecommunication companies to attach their wires; the PUD would do the same under the same terms. The entire network design is estimated to cost between $110 and $130 million to build, with most of the costs going toward the fiber optic cable, and electronics, and to bury the cable in areas where there are no overhead electric poles and lines. The plan would take several years to fully implement and would require grant funds from state and federal sources. At a recent PUD Board of Commissioners strategic plan review, the Commission discussed how the PUD might approach a broadband deployment of this scale. “As a commissioner, I have a responsibility to ensure that the PUD is being a responsible steward of its electric system, so it’s important that this broadband deployment not depend on electric ratepayer funds to build, and that the PUD would need to seek grants to pay for the construction,” said Tim Cournyer, President of the PUD Board of Commissioners.

Grants, Grants, And More Grants

The PUD has already applied for several broadband grants and has several more grant opportunities in the pipeline for 2021 and beyond. In August 2020, the PUD applied for a $5.5 million dollar grant through the Washington State Public Works Board to provide fiber-to-the-home from west Chehalis to Adna and Pe Ell along Highway 6, and down through the Boistfort Valley. That grant application was not awarded, so the PUD quickly turned its attention to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Community Connect program, another broadband funding opportunity with a smaller project funding cap, to tackle a slightly smaller project that would serve west Chehalis to Adna and down through the Boistfort Valley. The USDA is expected to announce grant award winners soon. Since then, the PUD has been preparing nearly $24 million of additional broadband construction grant requests in 2021 to serve several areas of the PUD service territory. “We know it will take some time, but with a complete plan in hand, we believe we are positioned better than most to submit strong grant applications in a pandemic-induced climate when the state and federal government are investing more than ever in broadband deployment,” said Baine. For example, the Washington State Legislature appropriated over $400 million earlier this year to fund broadband deployment.

Retail Authority and Open Access

The Washington Legislature also responded to the need for greater broadband access. Two separate bills, both providing the authority for public utility districts to offer retail broadband service directly to end-users, were approved by the Legislature in May 2021 and signed by Governor Inslee. Lewis County PUD is carefully analyzing the new law to determine if and how it might responsibly provide retail broadband service. In the meantime, the PUD’s planning utilizes a model that has proven to be successful in other areas around the country: The PUD would build the fiber-to-the-home infrastructure as a publicly-owned open access network, which means that the infrastructure would be available for private internet service providers to connect end-users. “We think it makes sense to leverage the expertise of private providers to directly serve customer broadband needs, but to do so in an open access model so that multiple providers have the opportunity to serve an area; this creates competition, and with competition comes customer options, typically lower prices, and better customer service by providers,” said Chris Roden, PUD General Manager. “Using state and federal taxpayer dollars to fund a private internet service provider’s infrastructure creates the ethical dilemma of using public funds for a private, profit-seeking endeavor. Lewis County residents deserve a solution that will be owned by the public to serve the public for decades into the future,” said Roden.

The Big and Long Picture

“Lewis County’s future economic prosperity, from attracting new industry to enabling e-commerce, remote work, and technology-based educational opportunities at all levels are being held up by this broadband problem,” said Cournyer. “With unprecedented state and federal spending on broadband infrastructure, the PUD has a historical opportunity to be among those that can help solve the broadband problem that has persisted for years in our community,” he said. “The PUD solved the electricity problem in rural Lewis County over 80 years ago, and we have the publicly-owned infrastructure expertise to solve this present-day problem now.”