Improved access likely several years away for some
To get a fast-enough internet connection to run his business, Christian Kar rents office space at the Windermere Real Estate office in Mazama.
The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) is gathering information to gauge interest in high-speed broadband. For more about the survey, see the section at the end of the story.
• Online: okpudfiber.org/address-lookup
• Phone: Call TwispWorks at 997-3300
Kar gets internet service at his house, 7 miles up the road on Lost River, through CenturyLink, the local phone company. But the connection is so slow that it’s unusable even for simple tasks like emailing attachments and searching the web, let alone holding teleconferences, he said.
Kar is one of hundreds of Methow residents, by current estimate — primarily in Lost River, Pine Forest, and on Twisp River — who either have inadequate internet service or no connection at all beyond dial-up, which isn’t enough to handle modern-day online traffic. The wireless service in Mazama is 10 to 20 times faster than what he gets at home, Kar said.
Kar’s company, One Cup Project, sells coffee and accessories through the web and has a major global component — part of each sale is donated to humanitarian aid projects around the world — so communicating with partners online is essential, Kar said. “The management of this business is wholly dependent on internet. It was also embarrassing, trying to run a respectable business,” he said.
Kar tried everything, including a cell-phone booster, a personal hotspot, and satellite internet. But in the narrow gorge between high peaks and a dense forest, service providers like Methownet.com and NCI Datacom couldn’t find a location to serve Lost River with line-of-sight wireless transmissions.
“Every few months, I was at my wit’s end,” said Kar. CenturyLink would run diagnostics and send a technician to check his computer and connection.
Kar maintains that CenturyLink’s infrastructure can’t handle current web traffic, with households streaming movies and web sites heavy with graphics. “From talking to CenturyLink over and over, it became apparent they were unwilling to replace the equipment because there wasn’t a big-enough market,” Kar said. He’s since bought a building in Winthrop, where he’ll be moving the business.
Lost River resident Jim Brousseau also has to rent space in Winthrop to be able to work. “internet access in Lost River is a joke and the Hughes satellite that I pay for at home is pitiful at best,” he said by email.
Slow and slower
Robin Jeffers, who lives in Pine Forest, struggles with her CenturyLink service. “I wait for every internet page to load. I think generally my service is like much of the service in the valley — that is, slow, slows to a painful crawl on weekends, especially in summer and the ski season,” Jeffers said in an email.
“However, there are problems I think are specific to slow Century Link. Often I cannot get… any… large file to upload into my email. It just locks up … even if I give it 8 nighttime hours to do the job.”
Jeffers said she’s been advised to turn her router off and then back on to get to the head of the line, “which kinda suggests to me that someone else who’s in line for the signal gets bumped off when I get back on,” she said.
After Greg Scott learned CenturyLink wasn’t accepting any new customers in Pine Forest, he opted for satellite internet. While not fast, the satellite is acceptable for him, but to work from home, Scott said he’d need more reliable service. “Pine Forest has no real solution for what should be standard residential home needs in the 21st Century,” he said by email.
Jim Brennan, who lives on Twisp River Road about 12 miles from town, makes do with a DSL connection through CenturyLink. “It’s pretty limited in speed — we can watch a short YouTube video,” he said. A longer movie would take hours to load, if it worked at all. “We still get the little red envelopes from Netflix, that’s for sure.”
Still, Brennan feels lucky to have lived there long enough to get his internet access through the same small copper wires that carry his landline. People signing up now — including some new homeowners — end up on “the long and impossible queue” unless the account is formally transferred from the seller to the buyer in the real-estate transaction, Brennan said.
Efforts to reach CenturyLink about their internet service in the Methow Valley were unsuccessful.
Mapping the need
Local government, utilities and economic development groups are increasingly aware of the issues faced by Kar, Brennan and others — and of the impact on the county’s overall economy.
The Twisp Public Development Authority (PDA) received a $67,000 state grant in July to map the existing infrastructure for connection to the internet — from fiber-optic cables to wireless towers — and to devise a plan to fill in gaps with high-speed service. The grant is an outgrowth of a countywide broadband initiative. The PDA has a contract with TwispWorks to administer the grant, said Don Linnertz, executive director of TwispWorks.
The grant includes $50,000 from the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB), part of the state Department of Commerce, plus matching funds of $8,334 from Okanogan County and the PDA.
“As a rural, mountainous and remote community, the Methow Valley has limitations to broadband access. Not all residences have access to broadband, service provision is not consistent, and the infrastructure to support broadband is not in place in all areas,” CERB said in a fact sheet about the grant.
Okanogan County and the Methow Valley Broadband Action Team say better broadband infrastructure is necessary to create jobs; expand markets for existing businesses; and for education, health care and public safety.
All the local internet-service providers (ISPs) are interested in the potential for expansion. Linnertz even heard from several ISPs outside the area after the PDA received the planning grant.
The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) runs fiber-optic cables on its powerlines from Pateros to Twisp, but the line stops a mile north of Twisp. The fiber is strung for a few miles up Twisp River Road, over the Loup, and on the Okanogan side from Brewster north to Omak and Okanogan.
The PUD’s main backbone was overbuilt to be able to add more connections, but building spur lines can be very expensive, said Sheila Corson, the PUD’s community relations coordinator. Documenting the extent of need could help obtain a grant, or at least allow neighbors to share the cost of new infrastructure, Corson said.
The CERB grant requires the PDA to finalize the scope of work and hire a consultant by Nov. 21. After that, the PDA will have two years to gather information on existing infrastructure and propose the best approach for new connections. Actually extending cables or adding wireless towers will require another grant, Linnertz said.
The need for improved broadband exists throughout the county. The Broadband Action Team includes representatives from Okanogan County and the Colville Tribes, which both submitted their own grant applications and will make presentations to CERB in September, Linnertz said.
Take the PUD survey
The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) is gathering information to gauge interest in high-speed broadband access to the internet.
There is a brief online questionnaire where people can enter their address and information about their current internet-service provider. People can also provide detailed comments.
The PUD leases fiber-optic cables on its powerlines to internet-service providers like Methownet.com and NCI Datacom. The countywide survey, launched a few weeks ago, has already drawn almost 370 responses, more than half from the Methow Valley. Almost 120 respondents — 40 in the Methow — reported no internet access.
Although the questionnaire says, “Sign up here to help bring high-speed broadband services to your neighborhood!” the PUD is currently just gathering information so it can take areas of heavy interest into consideration in planning.
The online survey is at okpudfiber.org/address-lookup. Anyone who doesn’t have internet service or would prefer to provide information over the phone can call TwispWorks at 997-3300.