By RACHAL PINKERTON
Internet connectivity can be a sore subject with many people, especially those living in rural areas. Speeds can range from good to non-existent, depending on the location, the time of day and the weather. For many people living in Grant and Adams counties, having fiber seems like a dream that will never happen. But that is starting to change, thanks to past and current broadband legislation.
“Broadband internet” is a term that encompasses several different types of internet connections, including fiber optic, DSL, cable and satellite. In current legislation, the term is used to refer to fiber optic connections. The push is to get all homes in the country connected to the Internet through fiber. The benefits of fiber include the speed of the connection, the capacity that it can carry and longevity of the wire.
“Once fiber is laid, it can last 100 years,” said 9th Legislative District Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy.
As the world is becoming more connected through the internet, high-speed internet connections are becoming vital. For those living in rural America, getting access to high speed internet can be challenging, if it even exists. Over the past few years, several bills have been introduced at both state and federal levels to address this problem.
Last February, the Washington legislature passed House Bill 2664, which provides grants and loans to Washington port districts to lay fiber lines and build broadband connections into small communities.
“We’re getting fiber to every home and business,” said Dye, the main sponsor of the bill.
The money, distributed through the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB), allows port districts to lay fiber lines and give internet service providers (ISPs) access to use the lines to provide high speed Internet to customers.
Currently making its way through the state legislature is House Bill 1498, proposed by Governor Jay Inslee. This bill, if passed, would create a new agency that would do planning and mapping of where high-speed internet is needed. It will also work with federal broadband programs to ensure the state gets some of the funding.
Both of these bills reduce the financial investment companies have to make to get high-speed internet to rural communities.
“The risk is not too high,” said Dye. “It means an ISP who is going to participate can pay with revenues from sales.”
According to Dye, hooking up rural houses used to cost $20,000 per house. With the new legislation, the cost will be reduced to $1,100 per connection. The price point per house will be similar to that of urban cities.
But will Grant and Adams counties see any of this money come to their communities? Residents of both counties have issues with reliable connections and speeds that are able to able to handle the workload their business or home demands.
“The residents have complained most recently of lack of consistent connection that is reliable with any kind of speed,” said Othello mayor Shawn Logan. “Our options are limited. We don’t have consistent reliable connection in excess of 25 Mbps (megabytes per second). People rely on it so much for information, entertainment, communication. So much of our lives are dependent upon our relationship with the internet and social media. You need a reliable connection to do that.”
Logan has had an insurance business in Othello for 35 years. He remembers when he was dependent on a wireless connection.
“At certain times of the day, I’d get bounced off,” he said. “It wasn’t reliable to keep my business going.”
Businesses that store information on the cloud or that make transactions in real time are hindered by slow and non-existent internet connections. Poor connections also make it difficult for entrepreneurs to build a business or for those wishing to sell products online.
“We have to get into that market space,” said Dye. “There are brick-and-mortar stores in communities with depopulation. They can’t afford a family. They will need to connect to the Amazon marketplace. To do that, they need a good connection.”
Good internet connections are also important to farmers. With new technologies in tractors, farmers rely on good Internet connections to collect data and make decisions about their fields based on maps. They are able to watch their equipment in real time and run their circle sprinklers via internet. Internet also plays a part in delivery of water from Grand Coulee Dam.
“We recently got a memorandum from the president to put fiber into water bureau infrastructures,” said Dye. “Water is pumped from Grand Coulee. You have to be able to regulate that. It runs electronically. It is fascinating how technology dependent we are in agriculture.”
Farmers and businesses aren’t the only ones that require good internet. Students do also. Logan testified about the need for reliable internet for educational purposes before the Washington legislator about two years.
“We need to educate our kids,” said Logan. “A lot of kids couldn’t get internet connection unless they went to the library. They had no internet connection at home. It hinders their ability to do homework.”
In the past, money has been allocated to connect certain places, such as libraries and hospitals, but wouldn’t allow for business and residential connections.
“They cherry-picked the market out of each community,” Dye said.
In parts of Grant County, that has not been the case. The Grant County PUD started installing fiber lines and having customers connect in 2001.
“We had forward-thinking people in the county who understood the potential of fiber,” said Chuck Allen, public affairs supervisor for the Grant County PUD. “There was an opportunity for PUDs to connect to a fiber trunk line. They saw an opportunity and took advantage of it.”
Currently, the Grant County PUD has given almost 31,000 people in Grant County the potential for connecting to the fiber network through the Internet service provider of their choice. And they are expanding their current fiber network. The Grant County PUD Board of Commissioners has established a list of where they will expand next.
“The list was made by looking at survey data from the last decade or so,” said Allen. “With the expense of getting fiber out to folks, we want the biggest bang for the buck. As we continue to build and get more people on the network, it offsets the expense of installing the fiber.”
The commissioners also looked at the social benefits that fiber can bring to an area. If an area is economically depressed, fiber can pave the way for future economic growth.
“They look at other factors beyond cost and people (who can connect),” Allen said.
Up to this point, the Grant County PUD has paid for the installation of fiber from the revenues of electrical customers in Grant County and from wholesale electricity sales.
“The number-one priority of our power company is to generate and deliver power to our customers,” said Allen. “As funding is available, the commissioners evaluate if they can expand. We are expanding into nine areas this year.”
Since the Grant County PUD relies on revenue to install fiber lines, there isn’t a set date for installation to other areas of the county. However, commissioners have talked about having the whole county connected by the middle of the next decade.
“The idea is to do it as soon as possible for everyone while still maintaining the financial strengths of the Grant PUD and still achieving the mission of providing power,” Allen said.
Allen said the PUD has conducted surveys in the past in which customers have said they wanted to see the fiber network expand without paying extra on their power bill.
“We are positioning ourselves at the PUD to be able to do that,” said Allen. “There are a few years to go still before everyone can have fiber. We are following through on what the commissioners have learned from customers. There is a plan in place to make that possible.”
The situation in Adams County is different.
“We are not in the same boat as the Grant County PUD,” Logan said. “They used foresight to set up high speed internet. Othello didn’t have that foresight.”
There are a few major businesses in Othello that have fiber lines, but it doesn’t extend to the rest of the town.
“In the rest of the city, it doesn’t really exist,” said Logan. “Northland Cable has made some improvements, but it’s not available in all areas of town. That is a gap that needs to be bridged.”
The situation may not always be grim for Adams County. Currently, new fiber lines are being laid between Othello and Washtucna, thanks to money the federal government is putting towards expanding fiber throughout the country.
Dye said that with the laying of new fiber lines, she hopes that there will be multiple layers of redundancy. She related a time when the main fiber line was cut near Moses Lake. Adams County was without internet for 12 hours and lost 911 capabilities. All 911 calls had to be dispatched through Othello and relayed to the personal cell phone of someone who had to stand on the steps of the Adams County courthouse, because his cell signal wouldn’t work inside the building. During that 12-hour span, there was a fire and an attempted suicide.
“This is why we need to be redundant,” Dye said. “We need to open access so it is not proprietary and allows multiple people to operate on a network. If a proprietary network gets cut, we’re not stuck.”