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A map shows where 10-gigabit fiber Internet lines would be installed in Winlock of ToledoTel is approved for a request for proposal from Lewis County.
ERIC TRENT / ETRENT@CHRONLINE.COM

Published Wednesday, December 1, 2021 4:34 pm – Chronline article

By Eric Rosane / ericr@chronline.com

Lewis County commissioners on Tuesday approved a finalized telecommunications agreement with ToledoTel that details a 25-year public-private venture to bring broadband internet services to unserved parts of Winlock.

The full scope of the agreement is tentative on the county being awarded $23.5 million from the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Broadband Office. The county and ToledoTel finalized the application alongside the agreement in time for the state’s deadline on Tuesday.

About $135 million in first-round funding will be distributed through the Infrastructure Acceleration Grants program. The county expects to hear back by Jan. 6 on how much will be allocated for the program.

“I think it’s as strong an application we could make, given the amount of time we had to get it together and the real-world constraints. Other people are facing the same real-world constraints, and that’s why I feel like it’s pretty competitive,” said Eric Eisenberg of the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office, who negotiated for Lewis County the terms of the contract with ToledoTel.

The contract stipulates ToledoTel — providing a 10% grant match — would install, supply and maintain a new fiber optic system connecting more than 2,300 homes and businesses in the Winlock area for up to 25 years. Lewis County would own the fiber optic system.

The company would have exclusive access to the infrastructure for up to three years, and after that would have to open the network to competitors at a wholesale rate.

Per the grant requirement, construction must begin in June 2022.

All grant dollars awarded must be contractually obligated by the end of 2024, and the project must be finished in full by the end of 2026.

ToledoTel says it’s confident it can and have at least 800 new connections online by the end of next year.

“The Winlock project is a very large area, and those people have very poor broadband, if at all. I think we’re uniquely poised to succeed in achieving funding through the partnership with Lewis County and ToledoTel,” the company’s Chief Operating Officer Dale Merten told The Chronicle.

Buildout of the project over the next half-decade will roughly double ToledoTel’s customer base, Merten said, though the company has been busy automating its customer service systems and bringing about efficiencies in its systems. The company currently serves a customer base in the Toledo area, and has been eyeing a jump over Interstate 5 to Winlock since the area began seeing rapid expansion and growth.

Merten said it’s very possible they’ll have to hire more people as the expansion proceeds.

Supply chain shortages could have an effect, if this project was to move forward with full funding. Today, Merten said, they have enough fiber to only build about 10 miles of new infrastructure.

“Fiber and fiber related projects have an 18- to 21-month timeline, but there’s a lot of components to this project,” he said, adding later: “Though supply chains may have an impact on this project, there are still many things we can accomplish in the meantime.”

But many of the cities, ports, PUDs, government municipalities and nonprofits that applied for Infrastructure Acceleration Grants will likely be in the same boat and facing the same challenges Lewis County and ToledoTel have moving forward.

Among the several dozen other applicants that also applied for a grant award is the Lewis County Public Utility District, which requested $10.6 million to bring broadband internet out to Randle and Packwood — a project the Board of County Commissioners had previously voiced support for — and a $179,700 request from Lewis County Community Health Services to implement broadband internet for its Community Health Center.

“Definitely excited just to be able to see our constituents get broadband … Since the pandemic, people have needed (it) in order to do business or do school. Not having adequate broadband has definitely proven a major issue,” Commissioner Sean Swope said.

Contract negotiations between Lewis County and the business took about three weeks, Eisenberg said, which Commissioner Lee Grose applauded.

“This whole process is amazingly rapid for any government,” he said.

Commissioner Lindsey Pollock, a Winlock resident and business owner who said she would benefit from the decision, chose to abstain from the discussion and vote on Tuesday over perceptions of conflicted interests. The approved contract still passed 2-0.

Nearly all of the fiber optic installed in Winlock has been proposed for underground installation. Eisenberg said the expectation is that cable integrity will hold up for 25 years at a minimum, though possibly longer.

Lack of access to broadband internet is a major challenge for many Lewis County residents. According to a customer survey, about 77% of customers within the Lewis County PUD’s service area don’t have reliable access to high-speed broadband internet.

The state legislature this session passed two separate bills, ESHB 1336 sponsored by Rep. Drew Hansen (R-23) and SSSB 5383 sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-41), which set up conflicting public policies for how local governments can provide retail broadband service, and Governor Jay Inslee last week added further legal ambiguity by signing them both off camera—simultaneously—using his left hand to sign one, and his right hand to sign the other

By doing so, Inslee may evade a state law dictating that whichever bill is signed last takes precedence when it conflicts with other legislation.

“It puts the whole thing into confusion,” Washington Independent Telecommunications Association Executive Director Betty Buckley told Lens. The association represents small, traditional landline telephone companies that have sought to provide broadband service to existing coverage areas.

An advocate for greater rural broadband, Buckley and others backed SSSB 5383, which allowed local governments such as cities, counties, and public utility districts to provide retail broadband service – but only in areas where no coverage existed.

ESHB 1336 offered much greater authority for local governments by allowing them to service “anybody, anywhere, anytime,” Buckley said. “The goal of the House bill was never to provide rural broadband. It was to make a statement about large providers and to create competition for larger providers. If you live on Bainbridge Island and you don’t like the big provider out here, maybe the local PUD will provide you better service or service from somebody that you like. I think that’s incredibly elitist.”

Though both bills passed the legislature, some state lawmakers opposed to ESHB 1336 warned it would incentivize broadband infrastructure expansion in more urban areas and offered little reason to extend it in less populated counties.

It’s an assessment Buckley also shares. “I don’t care if you’re a public entity or a private entity; you’re going to look at your bottom line and think ‘it’s less expensive for us to build an area where there are many customers.’”

Testifying in favor of SSSB 5383 during the session was TDS Telecommunications. Communications Director Kit Beyer wrote in an email that “it appears the priority was to put out a large welcome mat for local governments in the broadband business instead of prioritizing unserved areas, which is important to TDS Telecom. This unfortunate outcome will not change TDS’ fiber expansion efforts in great communities in this state.”

Yet, Buckley added that despite ambiguity over the bills there’s still opportunities for collaboration to improve rural broadband.

“It doesn’t have to be a delay. There are relationships today where a private entity has partnered with a public entity, and they’ve made it work.”

Both bills take effect in July.

Original article published on thelens.news.

In late October Whidbey Telecom became only the second recipient of a USDA ReConnect grant in the state of Washington.  In addition, USDA Washington State Director for Rural Development Kirk Pearson presented Whidbey Telecom with the Washington State Infrastructure Award of Excellence for their efforts to provide high-speed broadband to their customers.  Whidbey Telecom will use the ReConnect grant to deploy a fiber-to-the-premises network to connect underserved residents and businesses to high-speed broadband internet in Point Roberts, Washington.

George Henny, Whidbey Telecom Co-CEO was thrilled to receive the award saying “we’re honored to be the recipient of the USDA Award of Excellence, recognizing the Whidbey Telecom commitment to keeping our communities connected.” 

As for the ReConnect grant, George went on to say that “like the South Whidbey fiber construction project, this will be a multi-phase, multi-year endeavor. The USDA ReConnect grant is just a start.  We have a lot of hard work ahead of us to put together a plan to fund and build a fiber broadband network in Point Roberts.”

Picture of Whidbey Telecom receiving the Washington State Infrastructure Award of Excellence.
Pictured, L to R:  Kirk Pearson, USDA Washington State Director for Rural Development
George Henny – Co-CEO Whidbey Telecom
Moanalei McManus – Whidbey Telecom, Regulatory Specialist

The full USDA press release can be found here:  https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2020/10/22/trump-administration-invests-596000-high-speed-broadband-rural

“These are the communities that we serve; our friends and neighbors. We have a duty to do what is right during times of crisis.” James Brooks, Inland Telephone Company.

I’ve spoken with many of our members in the last few days, all of whom are reaching out to their local communities to see how they can help them through the COVID 19 pandemic. Many are setting up hot spots, many are reaching out to their local schools to ensure that kids can continue to learn from home, and all have waived late fees and discontinued cut-offs. Some are even looking at ways to help people get back on their feet once our country is back to work.

Inland Telephone’s efforts cover all the bases. This story is just one example of why Doug Weis, Inland Telephone Company President, was awarded the President’s Award last year. We were finally able to catch up with Doug and give him his award at the ITA Showcase this spring.

Inland Telephone Company’s Roslyn exchange has FTTH and full coverage. They light-up the entire downtown of Roslyn with Wi-Fi every summer for the Farmers Market and their techs have been told to turn that up now. Inland Telephone Company is currently working with the Roslyn-Cle Elum school district to get those students that do not have service today turned-up. This also includes Cle Elum and South Cle Elum where they have a broadband CLEC.

Inland Telephone Company is not turning down requests for service in any of their exchanges: Dewatto, Prescott, Roslyn, and Uniontown.

They just concluded working with the Colton School District in Uniontown; connecting five households covering twenty students that were identified as needing broadband. Inland Telephone Company is not charging for the service or for the emergency student connections during this period of crisis.

Inland Telephone Company has suspended disconnects and late pay fees. When things get back to normal, they are committed to working with those subscribers that have become economically challenged during this crisis on payment plans.

It’s an honor and a blessing to work with companies like Inland Telephone; companies like all of our members.