Lewis County PUD Finalizes Plan for County-Wide, Publicly-Owned Broadband ‘Backbone’

‘Historic Opportunity’: $1 Million Request From County ‘Still On The Table’

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The Lewis County Public Utility District (PUD) has finalized its plan for an ambitious county-wide broadband backbone project — 110 miles of new fiber-optic infrastructure connecting even the most isolated residents with high-speed internet.

The multi-year plan will be reviewed next Tuesday, when individuals are free to provide public comment.

The potentially $130 million project comes at what PUD General Manager Chris Roden has called a “watershed moment”: PUDs across Washington were granted retail authority this year, meaning they can step in and directly connect residents unserved by private companies. Plus, significant state and federal funding is being funneled into broadband to address an increasingly-evident digital divide.

As public and private entities race to secure those dollars, Lewis County PUD wants to ensure that the community’s broadband backbone is owned by the public.

A sprawling fiber network owned by one corporation, said spokesman Willie Painter, is “not in the best interest of Lewis County residents.” Instead, a baseline infrastructure should be publicly owned and used by private companies — or the PUD itself — to provide last-mile retail service, since more options “typically translates into better price competitiveness.”

Not everyone is on the same page about that.

“That’s probably where Willy and I are going to disagree,” County Commissioner Sean Swope told The Chronicle this week. “I’m for the free market, for capitalism … I feel when it’s in the hand of private industry it grows, they advance, they get better.”

A survey conducted by the PUD revealed that more than 77.2% of respondents had internet speeds under the federal standard of broadband despite 97.7% considering the internet an essential utility.

PUD Commissioner Tim Cournyer said the agency now has a “historic opportunity” to address the issue.

“Lewis County’s future economic prosperity, from attracting industry to enabling e-commerce, remote work and technology-based educational opportunities at all levels are being upheld by this broadband problem,” Cournyer said in a statement this month.

But funding challenges persist as the PUD races to secure dollars in the face of increasing lead times and prices on broadband materials.

In May, the PUD requested a “quick allocation” of $1 million from Lewis County’s federal American Rescue Plan funds, the first $7.8 million of which has been received. The hope was to secure equipment before lead times and prices soared out of reach. The local funding could also make the PUD look stronger in already-competitive grant processes.

That request, Painter told The Chronicle this week, is “still on the table.” But after the county parsed out its 2021 chunk of funding, only $500,000 was reserved for broadband. Painter expects the PUD to make a more formal request for those funds.

Back in May, Roden posed to commissioners a key question: whether the community considers broadband essential.

“And if that’s the case, our broader community needs to make those investments,” he said.

Commissioner Lindsey Pollock — who this year pushed the Legislature to grant PUDs more authority to connect communities to the internet — said such an investment would be a nod to East Lewis County, signaling “we see you, and we know you’re having trouble and we’re doing something about it.”

During the since-concluded legislative session, Pollock was joined by a broad coalition of locals who echoed the sentiment that the private telecommunications sector had a chance to reach rural communities, and have so far fallen short. Some of the region’s state lawmakers disagreed.

Swope also expressed skepticism with the PUD’s million-dollar request.

“I have an issue with public entity cutting into private business,” he said back in May.

For his approval, the first-term commissioner said he would need assurance that private companies would be allowed to hook up to the broadband backbone instead of the PUD trying to “undercut” local industry.

“The private industry represents families in our community,” he added.

Indeed, the question of whether the PUD will provide direct retail service to residents — like they do for electricity — is a lingering one.

And it’s one “quite frankly, that the PUD board of commissioners needs to look at as well,” Painter said.

The industry is changing, Roden told the Chronicle earlier this year, “and that is unsettling for some people.

“We’re not in the business to push anybody out or take over. All we’re after is to help deploy broadband to our community.”

After the PUD made their request this year, ToledoTel CEO Dale Merten also provided insight to the county commissioners.

When asked by Swope what the private company could do with the same $1 million, Merten said it would likely pick up 2,600 homes in the Winlock area.

“But would I go out to Packwood? No,” he said, adding later: “it all boils back down to the money.”

With or without the fast cash to procure increasingly-expensive supplies, the project will likely take several years. Cournyer has emphasized the desire to rely on grant funding rather than ratepayers.

With a plan in hand, who might expect to get broadband first? First in line is likely to be the Pe Ell area, since a grant to fund broadband expansion there is already in the hopper. But the communities in desperate need of connection, as Roden has put it, “are too many to list.”

 

Comments

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Raymond

Not for it at all.

It was the same thing that Tacoma City Light did in Tacoma. They called it the Click Network and it all but bankrupt them after spending over 300 Million dollars to continually upgrade and install a system that became obsolete once Cell Wireless systems came up to speed from private businesses. Our power rates are low and secure right now. All this can do is raise our power bills once all the cost overruns start coming in.

Wednesday, July 28
Philza

Ah yes, the tired old argument about private business and free market dynamics. The internet market must be thriving then in Lewis County considering the lack of competition against Comcast and other large national corporations, who, by the way, increased their costs again without any threat of losing business. Swope's wrong when he says private businesses help grow internet service in this case, because the only thing growing is big business profits.

Of course, on the heels of the 'free market' argument, now it's also about 'folks in the community' who work those jobs. As if a public utility also wouldn't hire the same positions. But taking away Comcast jobs sure hurts the county (esp. since the majority of those service folks don't live here).

It's time to realize that faster internet is a requirement for moving forward as a business community. As an owner of an internet only business that brings in tax money, having more, better options benefits all of us and will open up more jobs that are internet adjacent.

We've already seen the impact of fiber in our industrial park, helping to bring in large commitments from outside corporations. It's time to help smaller businesses get access too.

Thursday, July 29
independent_thinker

Mr. Swope is completely wrong on this. I lived out past the Newaukum grange for years, and Comcast service ended a mile from my house. They refused to go any further because there wasn't enough customers or money to be made. That's when public funds could help reach the rest of us.

I actually have Comcast now, and the price has continually creeped up for the past 2 years. They have ZERO competition in my area, so it's easy money to just jack up the rates over and over again. My speed isn't getting faster, my service isn't better, just their profits keep growing.

Public investment can drive down the prices and help everyone except Comcast.

Does Mr. Swope stand for Comcast or his private citizens?

I support Willie Painter and everyone else working for this. Go get us the money and help your people!

Thank you.

Thursday, July 29
LL Hauer

I am so proud of the efforts of the Lewis County PUD to directly confront the problem of rural internet and to work to find a way to increase internet access in our county!

Internet service is the poster child for situations where free market principles are a complete failure. As a sensible citizen commented during the recent legislative hearings in favor of HB 1336, the bill that allowed our PUD to get involved in improving internet service -- if there was profit to be made from better serving rural residents, the existing large telecom companies like Comcast and CenturyLink would have already found a way.

Commissioner Swope, like most of our other local Republican legislators who claim that the free market is the solution to all problems, has no real alternative proposal to solve the problem of poor internet access. I’ve written to nearly all of them to hear their proposals for closing the digital divide that hurts rural people particularly badly and has made it very difficult to run my business. Most of them have never even responded to my constituent inquiries, much less put out a public proposal for improving rural internet. If the free market can’t fix it then all they can offer is to sweep the problem under the rug.

We’re so fortunate to have a motivated, creative group in leadership at our PUD to take on this challenge. Individuals have made good points about none of us wanting to see utility rates go up significantly to fund this new area of service, but I feel confident that savvy planning, particularly through strategic lease arrangements and service partnerships, can help us avoid that. The upside will be tremendous new opportunities for business growth and economic development in this county, not to mention overall quality of life for county residents.

Thursday, July 29
AJDb

This is so stupid that the PUD thinks they can fund a large fiber project like this. They cannot even properly maintain the power lines they currently have. Tons of deferred maintenance, outages caused by concentric neutral failures, etc... They have no problem funding six figure salaries for all of their "key" staff who know nothing about the operation of a fiber network. Lewis County doesn't need another PUD snafu of funds....

Not good for LC PUD ratepayers at all. Let the private CLECs handle this like Sean Swope has suggested.

Thursday, July 29
LC payer

Michael Kelley will make sure the LC folks at the PUD do not waste our rate payer investments in a fiber network that should be installed, maintained and operated by PRIVATE companies and not a joke of a public utility. I am glad he was elected.

Thursday, July 29
Josh

Don't give the pud the funds to waste on this. They will give out big pay increases and the public will see nothing. Give it to the private broadband folks who will actually invest in broadband infrastructure.....

Friday, July 30
FreeThinker

The PUD in LC has not shown they are responsible stewards of rate payer money. They do nothing but increase salaries well above LC averages. If they want to make 200k plus per year then move to King County. We have had enough down here and demand more for our hard earned money. Say NO to a PUD broadband system and let qualified entities make decisions on setting up and running this system. Lewis county will be money ahead to keep this from the greedy hands of the "PUD"..

Friday, July 30
Chehalis Payer

Please tell the Lewis County PUD that enough is enough. We are tired of our huge utility bills and would prefer private parties run this broadband system. Please join me in voting NO to the PUD running this system.

Friday, July 30
Adj

The PUD should be denied these funds for horse and buggy based fiber. Shame on Roden for wasting ratepayer money on this so called study. I don't think he even lives in Lewis County yet wants to waste our overpaid rate revenue. Come on, Lewis County is way more advanced than a fiber network. Send the funds to Elon Musm and the professional and knowledgeable staff at StarLink will have is light years ahead. Our PUD and management are a joke. Good thing Michael Kelly is the lone voice of reason....

Tuesday, August 3
Gtefiberman

Same old arguments based on 'natural monopoly'. No where in the US has letting the 'free market' actually worked, because of the same old tired arguments, except for one place I can point to as I was there at the beginning: Austin, TX. 1979. The state had bought into the telecom laws and regulations, just like most other states including Washington.

But Austin was somewhat unique, a fairly large and growing high tech community which of course was the state capitol, but only two tv stations (abc/cbs) and all others imported from San Antonio, some 100 miles distant. Cable tv was a necessity. But interestingly, at the time, two systems divided the area. Looking forward, folks in the city decided not to award a single company city wide contracts, but would allow all comers to rent space on city utility poles (electric service was city owned) so the gates were open.

Result: There are 5 providers there today, two fiber and three coaxial virtually city wide.

Now folks like to bring up wireless systems as being a panacea for rural connectivity. Yep, there are many, both terrestrial and satellite. None of those systems, from point to point microwave to cellular 4g/5g to the newest LEO even at the highest proposed level of expansion can provide the level of service above that of wire 20 years ago. Compared to fiber, forget it.

Telecoms in this country should have stopped deploying wire in this country 50 years ago, but didn't. So when digital wireless became available, they were blindsided as they watched a major chunk of their revenue disappear as folks cut their home phones. Some telecoms tried deploying fiber but made major technical errors both in design and deployment.

There are community and utility owned and operated systems around the country today that are models of efficiency. Mostly, they have commercial competition of one type or another, but have no problem competing without raising rates on their base service (usually electric), and in fact are consistently under legal attack by telcos and cablecos in their service area, and have been usually prohibited from expanding their operation simply because those companies can't compete. The big salaries aren't being paid to the local technicians, engineers, and managers, but to the bonus babies back east in Washington DC, Philidelphia, New York, and Boston.

Internet is the new utility. Most folks in the industry saw this coming that 50 years ago. But instead of dealing with it as we did with power and telephones, with a new REA, or making sure that competition would be paramount, we stuck to the Ma Bell model of monopoly over all, stuck to inefficient technology of the 1830's. We can continue down that road to another Supreme Court breakup decision that results in decades of chaos and results in larger and more powerful monopolies, or do things 'new deal' style.

Monday, August 9