Broadband group seeks grants for ‘digital divide’ projects
Three years ago, in the fall of 2018, local business and government leaders launched an initiative aimed at finding ways to improve broadband internet service in the Methow Valley.
Residents were already frustrated with unreliable internet service, particularly in outlying areas far from the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, and then came the COVID-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020.
The pandemic forced many people to work from home, required children to attend school online, turned medical appointments virtual, and brought swarms of urban refugees to the valley to work and recreate. Demand for already inadequate internet service soared.
“If there was ever any doubt this is an issue, the last year has proven how important it is,” said Don Linnertz, executive director of TwispWorks, who has helped coordinate the Broadband Action Team, a group of local government officials, business leaders and industry experts working to improve internet services in the Methow Valley.
A consulting firm hired by the Twisp Public Development Authority (PDA) began work on a year-long broadband study at the beginning of 2020. The goal of the study was to conduct a thorough analysis of the broadband infrastructure, identify gaps, and develop detailed plans for “shovel-ready” projects to improve broadband throughout the Methow Valley. (The term broadband generally refers to high-speed internet connection transmitted through wired or wireless networks.)
Adequate broadband is essential to provide residents an “even playing field” in a world where work, education and entertainment rely on the internet, Linnertz said.
Tilson Technology Management, a Maine-based telecommunications company, was hired to develop plans to improve broadband service through a $66,667 Community Economic Revitalization Board grant and local matching grants from Okanogan County and the PDA. Tilson’s study, completed in March, was overseen by TwispWorks and the Broadband Action Team.
“Information received post-onset of the coronavirus pandemic only reinforces overall sentiment that broadband availability in the valley is largely inadequate for telecommuting and distance learning, and that many second-home owners are not utilizing their residences in the valley the way they would if they had broadband connections,” Tilson said in a report on its broadband study.
The report heard from a number of residents frustrated with slow internet speeds.
“Many full-time valley residents also suggested their current internet connections were inadequate for basic tasks such as working from home and watching online video content, and suggested their internet connections, that were already inadequate, had slowed to a crawl with increased recent usage,” Tilson said.
The Tilson report included comments from a survey of Pine Forest residents, conducted by the Pine Forest Homeowners Association. “The Pine Forest area is representative of the larger Methow Valley in that broadband availability within the community depends greatly on specific location,” Tilson noted.
The lack of reliable internet services poses a threat to the community’s safety, said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, a member of the Broadband Action Team.
“It’s an essential communications tool that everyone depends on for real-time information in critical situations,” said Ing-Moody, who has led Twisp during wildfire emergencies that temporarily knocked out telecommunications. “Residents, visitors, firefighters and first responders all rely on the same system to function during dynamic emergency events — our continued well-being and safety depend on it,” she said.
Tilson consultants began their work in January 2020 with an analysis of the “broadband gap” — areas in the Methow Valley where internet is so insufficient that residents cannot participate in the economy or digital opportunities on a level playing field with most other Americans.
The consultants used the Methow Valley School District boundaries as the study area. They based their gap analysis on Washington state’s recently codified broadband policy goals of all state residents having access to internet that provides 150 megabytes per second (Mbps) upload and download speeds by 2028, a goal that is higher than the current federal broadband definition of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.
Although the 150 Mbps speeds aren’t currently available, local internet providers like the Okanogan County Public Utility District (PUD) or Methownet.com (a Winthrop-based internet provider) could scale up their fiber infrastructure to meet that service level, Tilson said.
Using those guidelines, the consultants determined that any location that doesn’t have access to the 150 Mbps service “or a clear roadmap to 150 Mbps symmetrical internet access is on the wrong side of the gap … and therefore would be a location included in any broadband infrastructure upgrade project undertaken in the Methow Valley.”
That includes virtually all locations not in relatively close proximity to fiber infrastructure operated by the Okanogan County PUD or Methownet.com, Tilson said. This includes most of the customers served by the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC) and many customers in the Okanogan County PUD service area distant from the PUD’s existing fiber network — basically anyone not living near Twisp or Winthrop.
$40 million project
After identifying the broadband service gap, Tilson developed a “high-level design” based on using fiber cable, either in-ground or on utility poles, to deliver internet to residential and commercial premises. The design was based on using fiber because wireless internet service (which uses radio signals transmitted by a cell tower) is not practical in many areas of the Methow Valley, due to the mountainous and densely foliated landscape that interferes with the line of sight needed for wireless connections.
The bill for materials to construct the fiber-to-premise system that closes the broadband gap came to $40 million, based on the consultant’s design. Tilson also developed two business- model options to expand internet service through a phased build-out. One scenario would involve the Okanogan PUD extending its existing fiber from its substation south of Twisp into the upper Methow Valley and into the OCEC service territory.
Another business model would involve a private network developer investing in the infrastructure, and operating it as a retail business. A possible example would be CenturyLink, although that “may seem unlikely given CenturyLink’s lack of expansion and improvement of broadband infrastructure in the valley in recent years,” Linnertz said.
Both business models developed by Tilson predict a cash flow deficit of more than $30 million 10 years after the system has been fully built out to provide internet throughout the valley.
“Because of the size of the customer base, the return on investment would be a significant barrier. The main challenge is the high cost to build broadband infrastructure … high cost because of low density of homes,” Linnertz said.
A first phase of construction proposed by Tilson would extend fiber cables to 573 premises — primarily homes — in the southern part of the valley, including Twisp River Road beyond the PUD’s current service area. The cost per household would be $13,000.
The numbers may sound discouraging, but Tilson’s study of the valley’s internet needs, and detailed plan for expanding service, lay the groundwork for going forward, Linnertz said.
“This high-level plan suggests some approaches to break down the overall expansion of fiber in the Methow Valley into shovel-ready projects,” Linnertz said. “The value of doing the broadband study is that it has put all the pieces in place that make it possible for us to look for the funding.”
“The question is,” Linnertz said, “who is the qualifying applicant going to be and who is going to own and maintain and operate that infrastructure going forward?”
Collection of solutions
The Washington state Legislature recently passed a law that authorizes entities like public utility districts, towns, cities and ports to provide retail internet services. Given the high cost of building a system to serve the rural Methow Valley, “the PUD, rightly so, is reluctant to provide this service outside their electrical territory,” Linnertz said.
“While funding for infrastructure is becoming increasingly available, a significant challenge is the absence of a qualified applicant for the funding,” Linnertz said. The $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure plan approved by the U.S. Senate in August includes a $65 billion investment in broadband that the White House said will address the “digital divide.” The bill must pass the House to become law.
The Broadband Action Team will continue to meet and is seeking grant funding to support its ongoing efforts, Linnertz said. The team is working to identify smaller, shovel-ready projects within the Okanogan PUD service territory to expand fiber to premises, and to identify an applicant for funding to carry out the projects.
The Broadband Action Team includes the Twisp and Winthrop mayors Soo Ing-Moody and Sally Ranzau; Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover; Okanogan County Economic Alliance Director Roni Holder-Diefenbach; Colville Confederated Tribes representative Matthew Pleasant; Don Rudolph, a telecommunications consultant; Harry Grant, an environmental attorney; and Linnertz. (Linnertz is retiring as TwispWorks’ executive director at the end of September.)
This summer TwispWorks, working with the Broadband Action Team, provided descriptions to the state Public Works Board detailing possible projects to expand fiber in the vicinity of Carlton and Methow. The proposed projects are part of a statewide survey of potential grant-funded projects in the future, Linnertz said.
Building new broadband infrastructure “will require public and private funding,” Linnertz said. Local internet service providers have expressed interest in partnering in future fiber and wireless infrastructure developments, and rapid developments in satellite internet solutions may also play a role in filling the broadband gap, although the current costs of satellite services are out of reach for many Methow Valley residents, he said.
“There are increasing opportunities for financial assistance to strengthen broadband capabilities for remote areas like ours,” said Ing-Moody. “To take advantage of programs will require collaboration with community partners to prioritize and develop viable projects scaled to our communities’ needs.”
“From the outset, we understood that this was going to be a long process. We need to look at this as a collection of solutions, rather than one size fits all,” Linnertz said.
“It’s going to be a decade or more of discovery and continuing to uncover opportunities to create plans, write grants, and implement solutions,” Linnertz said. “Raising awareness of the need in the Methow Valley and providing a roadmap for future possible infrastructure development is a welcome step in the right direction on this road.”
A sampling of the Pine Forest survey comments:
• “It is really hard for a local to work from home when our internet gets overwhelmed by the second homeowners.”
• “The internet today is what the telephone was to society 100 years ago — not having access is wrong.”
• “I currently cannot live full-time in Pine Forest only because (of) lack of internet service. My job would allow (it) if I had fast, reliable service.”
• “We need to join this century in technology and internet performance. There’s a lot at stake, including economic participation and community safety, and we need infrastructure investment to get there.”
• “I have called CenturyLink many times and they say that they won’t upgrade the speed in the valley because there aren’t enough customers to warrant an upgrade.”