Broadband action committee considers how to progress
June 24, 2021
The Broadband Action Committee gathered on Monday for a discussion about how to move forward in their bid to bring broadband to the east side of Wahkiakum County, and to hear from Chris Walker of Noanet, and Russ Elliott from the Washington State Broadband Office. Representatives of District 19, including Jeff Wilson, Jim Walsh and Joel McEntire also attended.
Wahkiakum PUD Commissioner Gene Healy gave a brief history of the project, beginning with his attendance at a telecom conference in Spokane about three years ago, where it became clear to him that there was a need in Wahkiakum County that wasn’t being addressed.
When Healy returned, he contacted several local leaders and entities to spearhead an effort to bring broadband to the area.
Several guests shared their knowledge with the committee over the months, he said, including one who encouraged the group to make an application to the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Community Economic Revitalization Board for a study grant.
After the PUD was chosen to be the lead agency for the project, they applied for and were awarded the CERB grant in the spring of 2019, General Manager Dave Tramblie said. Over the next year, Noanet mapped the entire system east of KM, conducted a customer survey, engineering, and financial analysis.
“The project was estimated at over $10 million dollars,” Tramblie said.
An application was submitted to the Public Works Board in the fall of 2020. Following communication from PWB, the PUD reduced their request to $5.5 million, and shrank the scope of the project to a smaller area.
The PUD was awarded a grant of approximately $800,000 and a loan of about $4 million. After much thought, the PUD decided to decline the award, because Tramblie said, they found “it impractical to take on that much debt.”
The PUD has since resubmitted the project information to Elliott and the Washington State Broadband Office, hoping that some recent federal funding could be directed to Wahkiakum.
Elliott attended the meeting via Zoom.
The newly formed Washington State Broadband Office was focused on building up their staff at the moment and not currently reviewing any projects, he said.
“We have $300 million we have to try to get allocated,” Elliott continued. “We are getting ready to put our program together to start to identify projects and see how we can get those funds out here.”
“Your project obviously is compelling,” Elliott said, adding that while he had heard the price tag and the area of consideration, he would like to see more details.
When asked about criteria for funding, Elliott said that his office would be considering the unserved, public infrastructure and open access projects, and public/private partnerships.
Elliott said he believed it would be first come, first serve, but ultimately, he doesn’t want to turn anyone down. They may not provide funding, but they could be a partner who will help find funds.
Wilson asked for a timeline for fund allocation.
“We’re going to get it right, we’re not just going to spend money because we have to and have to do it fast. That’s not success,” Elliott said, adding that while it is an aggressive timeline, he would like to see the money begin flowing out of their office in the next two months.
As the committee continued to discuss sources for potential funding, County Commissioner Lee Tischer said that Wahkiakum County would be receiving $480,000 from the federal government for recovery.
“We don’t have millions to give out,” he said. “Most of that will go into lost revenue. The first check is pretty well eaten up.”
“A county the size of Wahkiakum isn’t going to have a windfall of money like bigger counties. They are going to spend it in an effort to stay solvent,” Bill Fashing of the Cowltiz/Wahkiakum Council of Governments told Elliott.
“You guys got the short straw,” Elliott said. “That’s why you are more important. I am a champion of rural broadband. I want to make sure we don’t overbill people who are doing good work.”
He reiterated a desire for the details, and added that he wanted to be a better supporter of the local project.
“I really would like to be part of the conversations you have around this,” Elliott said.
Chris Walker of Noanet said that his organization had learned since the feasibility study that the county has been eliminated from any future broadband funding since the Connect America Fund awarded a portion of the county to what would eventually become Wave Broadband. He’d also learned that Spectrum, more commonly known as Charter, had since been awarded many of the areas where they conducted their study, as well as all of their shovel ready project development.
“They are two federally funded programs that if executed upon correctly by privates would be leading us to affordable broadband availability in the serving area,” Walker said.
“They need to be held accountable,” he said later.
Walker said he would continue to do his part to try to bring broadband to the east side of Wahkiakum. He encouraged the committee to continue to reinforce the need in the community.
In other news, Steve Carson of Skamokawa Internet Services asked for assistance. He recently learned that Hancock Timber had refused to continue a lease on two sites where Smoky Waters Internet, which he recently took over, had placed transmitters. Because of their decision, several of his customers would be losing internet service.