Sets stage for improved internet service in valley
A recently completed consultant’s report details broadband access issues in the Methow, and will serve as a baseline for efforts to create improved internet service throughout the valley.
Access to reliable internet service is an ongoing issue for many valley residents, which prompted TwispWorks to facilitate the creation of the Broadband Action Team (BAT) — a group of Methow Valley and Okanogan County political and economic leaders, and people with technical expertise — more than two years ago.
Consulting firm Tilson Technologies was subsequently contracted to assess the valley’s broadband status and assist in creating a plan for better internet accessibility. The grant for Tilson’s study was awarded last year by the state Community Economic Revitalization Board, part of the Washington Department of Commerce. The $50,000 grant includes a match of $16,667, shared by Okanogan County and the Twisp Public Development Authority. The grant application was written by TwispWorks.
TwispWorks Executive Director Don 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.
The 70-page report by Tilson, a Maine-based telecommunications company, contains a thorough overview of broadband availability in the valley. Included in the report are information about existing internet providers and infrastructure, problems with connectivity due to geographical challenges and/or lack of infrastructure, funding options, and finally recommendations for developing improved broadband access in the Methow.
“I think they did a great job including and interviewing all of our internet service providers, and mapping what infrastructure we have in this area. If you were going to go on a road trip there is no way to plan your route, if there is no map. Now we have a map,” said Linnertz.
This past winter, the BAT and Tilson Technologies representatives hosted two community meetings to survey Methow Valley residents about current broadband accessibility issues. “The community said what they want,” said Linnertz. “Tilson has now documented the infrastructure we have in place in the Methow Valley, and where the gaps are.”
“We provided the report to all the utilities before we made it public, so they could comment on whether it is an accurate representation of what they have,” said Linnertz. “They’ve all been very cooperative in this. It’s all been very civil, it’s been, ‘what is our vision and what do we want.’”
The executive summary of the report is available on the TwispWorks website, where the full report can also be requested. Additionally, the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) has information and a survey on its website, http://www.okpudfiber.org.
The PUD is compiling survey results to better understand where the need and desire are for building more fiber wire infrastructure in the Methow.
In response to an increased need for broadband access during the pandemic, the PUD has installed and made available 13 free, drive-up Wi-Fi hotspots through the county, with two additional locations to come. The PUD worked with area schools to identify the 15 locations for Wi-Fi hotspots, based on broadband availability and local need for additional access. The Methow Valley now has four drive-up Wi-Fi hotspots available — one in Methow, two in Twisp, and one in Winthrop.
Electric utilities involved
The PUD and the Okanogan County Electric Co-op (OCEC) would be two of the primary players in developing high-speed broadband access throughout the Methow Valley, according to Tilson Technologies broadband consultant Fred Feit. Through Tilson’s work in the Methow Valley, the two utility companies have been brought together on plans for building out fiber-optic networks throughout the valley. The PUD might expand and operate the fiber network, while the OCEC would own and install the fiber optics on its utility poles, according to Feit.
“A fiber-rich network is carefully designed and engineered. There are clearances on the utility poles that have to be adhered to, and existing infrastructure on poles needs to be taken into account,” said Feit. “[And the physical installation] would be put out to competitive bid to qualified specialty contractors that specialize in installing fiber networks.”
Public funding options for building broadband infrastructure are being researched by Tilson.
While costly, the push for fiber broadband, according to Feit, is due to fiber’s ability to allow multiple users to access high-speed broadband without slowing connectivity. The Federal Communication Commission’s definition of broadband is a connection rate of 23/5 megabits per second, and while the town centers of Twisp, Winthrop, and Mazama all have access to fiber that provides 40/5 megabits per second, according to Feit, the further you get away from these hubs the more service declines.
“New service in and around Twisp, Winthrop, and Mazama is relatively good,” said Feit. “But as you get beyond Goat Wall, up East Chewuch Road, or down past Twisp River Road the speeds just decline, and eventually drop off the cliff.”
The report from Tilson Technologies is the first deliverable of a four-phase broadband study, which will be completed by the company at the end of this summer. The next step for the BAT will be a second report including a “gap analysis,” expected by May 29.
The final report is expected on Aug. 31. That last phase of the study, Linnertz said earlier, will be to develop business and technical models, and address subjects like feasibility, barriers to success, regulatory considerations, lifespan of systems, route mapping, types of equipment, and required permits.
Linnertz said earlier that there will likely be another community meeting in early summer to review the consultants’ assumptions.
The Federal Communications Commission reports that 26 million Americans, primarily in rural communities, do not have access to high-speed broadband. Focus on access issues has increased partly as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
On May 13, Sen. Maria Cantwell asked that increased resources be made available to improve and expand broadband access across the United States, as part of the next COVID-19 relief package, at a U.S. Senate Committee Hearing.
“The COVID crisis has made it crystal clear; functioning broadband is absolutely necessary for every American home,” Cantwell said during her opening statement at the hearing. “We’ve spent a lot of time in this committee over the last several years talking about the persistent digital divide, and the harms that come to both our economy and society. But we have not done enough to close that divide. And now, we are in the middle of a crisis where people who are disconnected from school, work, health care, friends, and family need access urgently. Staying connected is as critical as ever.”
Drive-up Wi-Fi hotspots available in valley
The Washington State Broadband Office, spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic, is working to create over 300 free Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the state. The Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) was one of the first to use its existing fiber networks to provide hotspots for county residents.
The sites will remain in operation most likely through the summer, but could remain in place if still needed for school in the fall, according to the PUD. Access does not require a password; users simply need to look for the wireless connection name “OKPUD_FreeWifi.” Social distancing can be maintained as the drive-up hotspots have a 300-foot range, and allow users to access broadband internet while staying in their cars.
The Methow Valley has four drive-up Wi-Fi hotspots now available for use:
• The Winthrop library, 49 Highway 20.
• The Twisp library, 201 N. Methow Valley Highway (Methow Valley Community Center).
• The Okanogan County Fire District 6 station in Twisp, 234 W. Second Ave.
• In the community of Methow on South Main Street, at the end of the pavement.