(Editor’s note: This article is excerpted from a story that appeared in the Methow Valley News in May of this year.)
A $12 million federal grant is enabling the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC), in partnership with Methownet, to launch a project to deliver high-speed internet, with no installation costs, to about 2,600 potential users in the upper Methow Valley.
OCEC partnered with Methownet, the valley’s local internet service provider, on the project to build a broadband fiber optic network that will provide internet service from Winthrop to the north end of Lost River Road in Mazama.
OCEC and Methownet formed a partnership last year to conduct a feasibility study and develop plans for a broadband fiber optic network to deliver internet to homes and businesses in OCEC’s service area, which encompasses about 3,700 potential internet connections.
The grant will allow OCEC to bring high-speed internet to a portion of its service area via a fiber optic “backbone” extending north from Winthrop, serving many areas where internet service is currently unreliable or nonexistent.
This is the first phase of building out a fiber network to OCEC’s entire service area, and the project was scoped to be accomplished with a $12 million grant — the maximum amount available in this funding cycle, Mendonca said.
The project area includes some of the most densely populated portions of OCEC’s service area, which drives down cost by increasing the number of customers per mile. The full cost of the project is $13.2 million, which includes $1.2 million in matching funds, and is “by far the largest [capital] investment” that OCEC has undertaken for any project, said Mendonca.
Plans developed by OCEC and Methownet include extending fiber to the rest of OCEC’s 1,100 customers, including the Twisp River Road and Loup Loup areas. Mendonca said building fiber to the rest of the service area would cost approximately $10 million.
The new internet system will utilize overhead and underground rights-of-way already in place. Despite “leveraging the existing infrastructure,” the investment in internet will represent a major part of OCEC’s assets, currently valued at $16 million, Mendonca said.
Methownet has been working toward delivering high-speed internet throughout the Methow Valley since the company was established 22 years ago, but the partnership with OCEC and the infusion of federal funding vastly accelerated that effort, said Jeff Hardy, who is co-owner of Methownet with his wife, Maria Converse.
“For the past 20 years we’ve been planning for this … to have internet hard wired into every house or business,” Hardy said. “We’ve been stringing fiber every day. To do something on this scale, it would take us 25 years.”
The source of the $12 million grant for the fiber internet project is the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), a Biden administration program enacted in 2021 to mitigate the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. ARPA includes capital project funding administered by the Washington State Broadband Office, which awarded the grants. Mendonca said matching funds are also anticipated from ARPA funding administered by Okanogan County.
The $12 million grant requires that the funds be used to deliver reliable high-speed broadband to areas that lack it. Lost River and other areas of Mazama fit the definition of unserved or underserved, Mendonca said.
Construction is expected to begin next spring to install 183 miles of fiber up the valley. Construction must be completed by October 2026 under terms of the grant funding.
Once in place, this fiber backbone will act like a transmission line does for electric service, allowing delivery of internet to individual hookups. The fiber will be carried on power poles in areas served by overhead lines (81 miles) and buried in areas where power lines are underground (102 miles).
The line will originate at the Twisp substation, where fiber optic internet is delivered by the Okanogan County Public Utility District. The new fiber line will follow the Twisp-Winthrop Eastside County Road, on the east side of the Methow River, to Winthrop. Internet hookups for the project will be available from just south of Winthrop north to the end of the valley.
OCEC and Methownet installed a fiber line in 2010 that runs up the valley from Twisp, primarily along the west side of the Methow River. Just as OCEC has worked to create redundancy in power lines to prevent interruptions in its electric delivery system, the new fiber line “will create that same redundancy” for internet service, Mendonca said. The new line will also be an important part of expanding internet to the rest of OCEC’s service area in a future capital project, he said.
Partnership for service
With Methownet, OCEC will also be working to line up internet customers. Methownet’s two decades of experience providing internet to valley residents is essential to the project’s success, Mendonca said.
“They are already set up as an internet service provider. We’re set up to build and maintain infrastructure,” he said.
A new website, www.okanogancountyconnect.com, promising “lightning fast fiber internet,” is being developed to provide information about the new internet service. Potential customers will be able to put in their address to find out if they are within the new service area, and can see pricing for different levels of internet speeds. The retail costs are still being finalized, Hardy said.
Hardy estimated that about 1,100-1,200 of the potential 2,600 internet customers in the project area currently receive internet through Methownet. OCEC and Methownet are hoping about 75% of potential customers will want to sign up.
New hookups for the service will be free. “With no-cost installation, we tried to lower the barrier of entry as much as possible,” Mendonca said. “We want to make it equitable for everybody.”
The project will use “fiber to the home” installation, in which fiber is connected physically to homes or businesses, as opposed to an “access point” and then wireless to the premises, Mendonca said.
The new system will deliver internet at speeds starting at 100 megabits per second for uploads and downloads, considerably faster than much of the internet currently available. “We now have accounts that have 10 megabits per second as the base,” Hardy said.
Areas in the far northern part of the valley that are currently unable to access internet due to their remote location, including some parts of Lost River, “will be able to purchase a gigabit up and down” when the project is completed, Mendonca said.
Under the provisions of the ARPA grant funding, Methownet will have exclusive rights to sell internet services for three years after construction is completed, and then the fiber broadband system will open to other retail internet service providers.
Hardy said Methownet has seen demand for internet in the Methow Valley grow by almost 30% since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by an influx of new residents and people who began spending much more time living and working in second homes.
Finding ways to improve internet service in the Methow Valley has been an ongoing issue for years, as full-time and part-time residents have complained about unreliable or nonexistent service in parts of the Methow Valley.
A Broadband Action Team was formed by local business and government leaders in 2018 to address issues with internet access, and has been very supportive of OCEC and Methownet, Mendonca said.
Creating the fiber network will ensure a reliable future for internet in the valley, Hardy said.