Community meeting speakers say lack of service is threat to livelihoods, safety
How bad is Internet service in parts of the Methow Valley? It’s so bad, one Lost River resident said, “I sent an email and drove to the Mazama Store for ice cream and I passed the email.”
That story was one of dozens told by local residents who attended a community meeting last week to describe their experience with Internet service in the valley. Most speakers weren’t there to praise their service.
High school student Tova Portmann-Bown said she needs the Internet to do homework, but service is unreliable or nonexistent during peak hours at her home on Newby Creek about 6 miles up Twisp River Road.
“I often have to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to do homework, because after 8 o’clock the Internet doesn’t work,” Portmann-Bown said. “I’m a teenager and need sleep … it’s really frustrating not to be able to get things done.”
The Oct. 10 meeting was held as part of an ongoing assessment of local broadband Internet service, with a goal of identifying needs and finding ways to fill them. The effort is being led by Partners for Rural Washington (PRWA), an advocacy organization for rural communities, through agreements with the towns of Twisp and Winthrop.
Speakers from different areas of the valley, with different Internet providers, said poor quality Internet is an inconvenience in some cases, and a threat to livelihood in others.
Brendan Smith, who lives near the town of Methow, said he and his wife are both medical providers and had been told before moving there a about a year ago that high-speed Internet was available through a satellite Internet company. They have found, however, that the service doesn’t meet their need to be able to access information necessary for their work.
“We have a real decision to make — can we live here?” Smith said. He said they have considered whether they need to look for a home at another location in the valley with better service. “We need to think about what we need to do for our long-term future.”
A couple of speakers said they must work at a shared office space in Winthrop that has high-speed Internet because the Internet service at their homes is inadequate. “It means have to drive 25 miles to work,” said Jim Brousseau, who works in software sales and lives near the end of Lost River Road in Mazama. “A lot of us need to have high-speed Internet to work.”
Brousseau said his job involves frequent online meetings via Skype or Webex, and his satellite-based Internet service isn’t reliable. “It doesn’t make a very good sales presentation when your connection drops,” he said.
Comments at the public meeting reflected findings of a survey conducted recently by TwispWorks, which hosted the community meeting last week at the Methow Valley Community Center. As of last week, 227 people had taken the survey and 69 percent of respondents gave poor ratings to their download speed and 71 percent gave poor ratings to their upload speed.
Of the respondents, 60 percent lived 1 to 10 miles outside Twisp or Winthrop town limits. The survey found the primary three uses of Internet were for email (about 70 percent), work (about 50 percent) and streaming movies or TV (about 47 percent).
Speakers at the public meeting noted that service within the towns is generally better than outlying areas. “The preponderance of folks who said they weren’t happy were out of town,” said Mario Villanueva, executive director of PRWA.
PRWA offered to take on the broadband issue as part of its advocacy mission for rural communities. Twisp and Winthrop have signed Memorandums of Understanding to work with PRWA, and the agreement will be presented to the Okanogan County Commission this week, Villanueva said.
A “broadband action team” from PRWA met last week with representatives of companies that provide Internet in the Methow Valley. Villanueva said about five companies are active in the Methow Valley, including Methownet, NCI Data Com, Hughesnet, Star Touch Broadband and CenturyLink.
He said the team hopes to work with the Internet service providers to develop an understanding of where service is available and plans for future service, in order to map current and proposed Internet service. That’s not as easy as it would seem, however, because “it’s a competitive business” and companies aren’t always eager to share business information, Villanueva said.
“I think this [assessment] is a new thing and they’re trying to figure out what’s happening here … there has to be a level of trust,” he said.
In the end, PRWA hopes to “bring in resources to build out the infrastructure and they can ride that infrastructure to bring more business,” he said.
Most Internet service providers rely on the broadband infrastructure built by the Okanogan County Public Utility District, which has a 400-mile fiberoptic “backbone” that runs along the Highway 97 corridor from Pateros to the Canadian border, up the Highway 153 corridor from Pateros to Twisp, and over Highway 20 from Twisp to Okanogan.
The infrastructure includes fiber optic distribution networks in many towns in the county, including Twisp and Pateros, and there are more than 430 fiber customers served through retail providers. The PUD operates a wireless broadband network with 12 towers including one in Twisp. The network serves just under 500 customers through local retail service providers.
The PUD also operates a Wi-Fi broadband network with over 170 access point throughout the county. Through retail service providers, the network serves over 1,600 subscribers.
While the PUD provides the “backbone,” it is only allowed by law to provide Internet as a wholesaler, and cannot serve retail customers, explained Ron Gadeberg, the PUD’s director broadband services, who attended the community center meeting. The PUD’s infrastructure is used by retailers, who provide the Internet services to homes and businesses through fiber, wireless or Wi-Fi.
“We offer the pipeline, the backbone connection. What the ISPs (Internet service providers) put on it is their business,” Gadeberg said.
Some people, however, receive Internet from CenturyLink, which has its own infrastructure in the valley and provides Internet via DSL — “digital subscriber line” — which delivers Internet on an existing telephone network. Others receive service from Hughesnet, a satellite-based system.
Gadeberg said the law preventing the PUD from being able to serve retail customers was “lobbied by big carriers like CenturyLink, because they didn’t want competition.”
Several speakers at the meeting asked what they could do, as individuals or members of neighborhoods, to improve their Internet service. They were advised that due to economies of scale, upgrades that serve the greatest number of customers are more likely to be undertaken by the service providers.
Villanueva said the assessment of Methow Valley Internet service will seek to identify areas of needs, determine the technologies needed to address them, and the costs to the providers and the customers. He said PRWA can serve as a third party to help facilitate the needed improvements and to seek grants or other funding to build the new systems.
“When it comes to designing a network, we will go out and find the money to do that,” Villanueva said.
The Okanogan PUD and Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC), which owns broadband fiber between Twisp and Winthrop, will need to be part of the solution, Villanueva said. “We want to help out any way we can,” said David Gottula, OCEC general manager.
In some parts of Washington, notably Mason County, PUDs are working to bring Internet to underserved, rural areas, Villanueva said. The Mason County PUD has a “fiberhood” program that builds the network based on demand. The program provides neighbors a way let the PUD know online that they want the network expansion, and when 75 percent of the residents commit in advance to the new service, the neighborhood will be added to a list for new construction.
Brousseau, of Lost River, said he plans to try to engage other members of his community to explore how to improve Internet service. “I’m going to see if we can get community involvement to say, ‘Hey, we have a need.’ I want to see if we as a community can work with, say, the co-op to get fiber out there. Maybe as a community we can form our own little local utility district.”