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February 2, 2022

Olympia, WA.  The Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO) has awarded the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association (WITA) $14.8 M to provide new services to more than 1200 underserved and unserved homes and businesses.  This public-private partnership teams WITA, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1915, with two small, family-owned telecommunications companies:  Hood Canal Communications (established in 1934) and Whidbey Telecom (founded in 1908).  Together these entities represent over 300 years of commitment to meeting the telecommunications needs of rural Washington.  

The grant will extend broadband services to residents and businesses in several low-density population pockets of Mason and Island Counties.  Each company will contribute a cash match to their portion of the project resulting in Fiber to the Home and offer broadband internet up to 1,000 Mbps (Gigabit) with synchronous upload and download speeds.  The availability of high-speed internet service will also greatly enhance the capabilities of state and local emergency responders in these areas.

George Henny, Co-CEO of Whidbey Telecom stated, “Washington State and the Federal government are making a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness.  We are encouraged by these collaborative efforts and the bipartisan support that is critical to ensure that we have access to affordable, reliable, and scalable fiber broadband technologies supporting the economic viability of rural areas today and into the future.”

Whidbey Telecom and Hood Canal Communications have aggressively pursued and received multiple State and Federal grants, both directly and in partnership with public entities, to ensure that even the most rural parts of their service areas have access to gigabit broadband service.  This grant will also help these companies expand beyond their traditional service areas into neighboring areas which are currently unserved.

According to Mike Oblizalo, General Manager and Vice President of Hood Canal Communications, the company is extremely grateful for the partnership with WITA and the WSBO for making these projects possible.

Contact:
Betty Buckley, Executive Director
Washington Independent Telecommunications Association
bettyb@wita-tel.org
509.690.0530


White boom truck with Hood Canal employee standing near front passenger side with white hard hat, yellow safety vest, and a thumbs up.
Hood Canal Communications (HHC) employee gives a thumbs up while posing in front of a white boom truck.
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.

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