Money would support research, planning for improved coverage
To help plan future improvements in internet services throughout the Methow Valley, a local Broadband Action Team will seek state economic revitalization funding this spring.
The Broadband Action Team (BAT), which was established last summer to find ways to make broadband internet more accessible and reliable in the Methow Valley, is planning to apply for a Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) planning grant in May. The grant would help the team “further evaluate our current service area map and establish a plan for underserved areas,” said Don Linnertz, executive director of TwispWorks.
Linnertz is a member of the BAT, which also includes mayors of Twisp and Winthrop, a county commissioner and two residents with expertise in broadband services.
Almost one-third of the rural U.S. population does not have access to broadband, according to recent statistics from the Federal Communications Commission, Linnertz said in a recent update of the local broadband planning effort. The term “broadband” generally refers to a high-speed internet connection transmitted through wired or wireless networks.
As expressed by many Methow Valley residents at a community meeting about broadband services last fall, “this lack of access can put unnecessary constraints on education, health care, public safety, business and many other critical services we rely on for a healthy community and economy,” Linnertz said.
Most of the local residents who complained of inadequate access to high-speed internet live in more remote areas of the valley away from the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, such as Twisp River Road and Lost River Road.
“Many Methow Valley residents report being cut off by a total lack of service or inadequate bandwidth, unable to take advantage of digital services and capabilities that are an everyday part of life for many urban residents,” Linnertz said.
Since the broadband team was formed last summer, it has held meetings with Perry Huston, Okanogan County planning director, and Ernie Rasmussen, representing the Colville Confederated Tribes, to “focus on this common challenge in our county,” Linnertz said.
Linnertz said the participants investigated the potential for working together to seek planning funds for the Methow Valley, as well as county and tribal lands. But the “unique geographical and community needs across our vast county” led them to decide to submit separate grant applications to plan for broadband improvements in different areas of the county, he said.
TwispWorks, through a contract with the TwispWorks Public Development Authority, will submit a grant in May focusing on planning for the Methow Valley, Linnertz said. The Colville Confederated Tribes, working with Okanogan County and with help from the county Economic Alliance, will make a separate application. Representatives of the Methow Valley, the county and tribes will continue to meet “to ensure an integrated county-wide solution,” Linnertz said.
CERB grants are funded through the state Department of Commerce and would provide $50,000 with a $16,667 match. “A CERB grant would provide the resources to continue community-led needs assessment and planning, and the development of a broadband infrastructure roadmap,” Linnertz said.
A recently completed draft study of broadband internet needs in the Methow Valley, conducted by Partners for Rural Washington (PRWA), emphasized the need to thoroughly assess the current state of broadband services by developing a comprehensive map of existing broadband networks.
That map would evaluate the capacity of the current system, pinpoint where service is poor, and assess needed upgrades and costs to the existing system. The map would also provide information to identify needed new backbone and wireless networks and costs to develop them, and help with the design of all needed improvements, according to the PRWA report.
The main contributors to developing the map would be the primary internet service providers in the Methow Valley — the Okanogan County Public Utility District, NCI Datacom and Methownet.com, the report said.
PRWA is an organization that works with rural communities on economic development issues. It signed an agreement last summer to work with Twisp, Winthrop and the county on a study of broadband issues.
The draft study said a technical analysis is needed to identify “current broadband service delivery in terms of speed, placement and reliability and where and why the areas of poorer service exist.” To gather the necessary information and create an accurate broadband network map, “it will take a collaborative effort between the BAT and public and private internet service providers,” according to the PRWA report.
The broadband map “is key to forming a final technical plan to identify where upgrades are needed for current systems and where new network system infrastructure is needed.” That will provide the basis for determining what technologies would be most appropriate to improve the system, and what the cost would be, the report said.
Linnertz said the study will be available on the TwispWorks website at https://twispworks.org/what-is-twispworks/advocacy/rural-broadband-and-the-methow-valley/.