A project that would bring high-speed broadband service into the upper Methow Valley is being developed by Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC) and Methownet.com.
OCEC and Methownet.com are preparing a grant application for $12 million in federal funding to construct a broadband fiber optic network, which would bring high-speed internet to Winthrop and OCEC’s electric service area north to the end of Lost River Road in Mazama — including locations where internet service is sketchy or nonexistent.
Greg Mendonca, OCEC general manager, said the grant awards will be announced early this year — sometime after Feb. 28 — by the Washington State Broadband Office. If the funding is granted, construction would begin this year, and must be completed by 2026.
The grant sought by OCEC and Methownet.com is part of a $120 million pot of federal money made available to Washington state through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) — legislation passed by Congress to mitigate the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. The capital project funds available through the state broadband office are specifically to deliver broadband to unserved or underserved areas.
Last year OCEC and Methownet.com, a private internet service provider in Winthrop, formed a partnership to conduct a feasibility study looking at bringing fiber to the co-op’s entire service area, which encompasses about 3,700 potential internet connections.
Working with consultants, they developed a proposed project that includes 2,600 potential users, a portion of OCEC’s service area, Mendonca said. The project was designed to be built for a budget of $13.2 million — which includes the $12 million in ARPA funding and a 10% match of $1.2 million.
The project needed to meet the grant criteria of delivering reliable, high-speed broadband to areas that lack it. “Lost River is classified as unserved/underserved,” Mendonca said. In general, “underserved” is defined as internet download speeds of 25 megabytes per second or slower. The project area also includes some of the more densely populated areas of OCEC’s service area, which drives down the project cost by increasing the number of customers per mile.
The project will build a “backbone” of fiber up the valley, following OCEC’s existing rights of way, Mendonca said. The fiber will be carried on power poles in areas served by overhead lines, and buried in areas where power lines are underground. About half of OCEC’s electrical lines are underground, Mendonca said.
“We want to do a backbone, it’s critical to get that in place,” Mendonca said. “The backbone is driven by network design, similar to electrical transmission and distribution.” Once in place, the fiber backbone acts like a transmission line, delivering internet to individual hookups.
The line will originate at the Twisp substation and follow the Twisp-Winthrop East County Road north. Internet hookups for the project will be available from just south of Winthrop north to the end of the valley.
To be successful, the new broadband fiber service will need subscribers, Mendonca said. “Community support will make this thing go. That’s where our partnership with Methownet.com is critical,” he said.
Methownet.com is the valley’s homegrown internet service provider and has been in business for 22 years. For most of that time, Methownet.com has collaborated with the electric cooperative on planning and delivering internet to valley businesses and residents. OCEC has helped Methownet.com install equipment, including bringing fiber from the Twisp substation (operated by the Okanogan County Public Utility District) up the valley on the co-op’s power poles to provide high-speed internet to downtown Winthrop.
“We’ve been working with the co-op for almost 20 years,” said Jeff Hardy, who owns Methownet.com with his wife, Maria Converse. “These are the guys who know how to hang wire on poles. We don’t have bucket trucks, they’ve been doing that for us,” Hardy said. Methownet.com provides wired and wireless internet service.
Through the partnership with OCEC for the proposed fiber project, Methownet.com will be the retailer for the internet services, and OCEC will be the wholesaler for internet service providers.
“They already have all their retail aspects set up, they are a known commodity. They see fiber as the future for the valley, and we see it as the future,” Mendonca said. “This [partnership] marries our ability to access the funds and their ability to be a local retail provider. A lot of people are loyal to Methownet.”
Under the provisions of the ARPA grant funding, Methownet.com will have exclusive rights to sell internet services for three years, and then the fiber broadband system will open to other retail internet service providers, Mendonca said.
Among the 2,600 potential customers of the proposed new fiber broadband system, about half are currently customers of Methownet.com, receiving either wired or wireless internet service, Hardy said. Other residents get internet through other providers, including satellite services, or are unable to receive internet at all, he said.
“We’re the local internet service. We can tailor to local needs. We have the knowledge on the ground to do things efficiently,” Hardy said.
Historically, larger retail internet providers like CenturyLink have been unwilling to expand their service to more remote areas of the Methow Valley, like the Lost River area, because there are not enough customers to make the service profitable, Hardy said.
It’s a lot like the past when large electric companies were reluctant to serve rural areas, leading to the creation of rural electric cooperatives, like OCEC, to bring power to their communities, Hardy said.
“OCEC was set up because corporations were not willing to come here. They created a nonprofit model to deliver electricity. We’re in the same circumstance now with fiber. Corporations don’t necessarily want to invest in an area like this … there aren’t enough people to make their investments pay off,” Hardy said.
Like electricity and phone service in the past, internet today “is becoming a utility — it’s basically something everyone needs,” Hardy said.
“Basically, we’ve got to do it for ourselves. I’m really glad to be doing it. You get to my age and start thinking about legacy. I would really like to leave behind a locally controlled internet service,” he said.
“You go to a co-op meeting and you can have a say in your [electric] service. It’s the shareholders who have a voice. I’m excited to continue that model here in the valley,” Hardy said.
After surveying its customers last year about their interest in the utility developing a broadband network, and hearing strong support, OCEC decided to hire a consulting firm to conduct a feasibility study with Methownet.com as a partner. The proposed project to build the fiber backbone in the northern part of the valley grew out of that study.
Improved broadband access in the valley has been a hot topic for several years, as full-time and part-time residents have complained of unreliable or nonexistent service in parts of the Methow.
In the fall of 2018, local business and government leaders launched 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 began work on a year-long broadband study at the beginning of 2020. The consultants found that most people not in relatively close proximity to the two towns lacked reliable, high speed internet service.
Prices for the internet service to be provided through the new fiber project are still being determined, and will include different levels of service available for different prices, Hardy said. Marketing plans are also being developed, but in a small community that has been clamoring for better internet service, Hardy expects the word of new opportunities to get out, Hardy said.
“In a small town you just go to the pub and start talking about it,” he said.
Mendonca said OCEC hopes to tap into ARPA funds available through Okanogan County for some of the $1.2 million match required for the $12 million grant.
An added benefit to the fiber project will be improvements to the utility’s electric delivery system. “Say we have poles in Lost River that we’re going to be replacing with a taller pole, or shortening the span, it’s only going to benefit the electrical infrastructure as well,” he said.
Although about 1,100 OCEC customers will not be served by the proposed fiber project, Mendonca said OCEC and Methownet.com will continue to research and potentially apply for additional grant funding to continue building broadband fiber into other underserved areas in OCEC’s territory, like Twisp River Road and the Loup Loup area.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year by Congress will likely be the focus of the next funding opportunity, Mendonca said.
“Grant funding is absolutely essential to provide broadband fiber service to OCEC’s electric service territory,” he said.