Local Effort to Bring Broadband to Key Peninsula

New survey of residents will add to information that could speed progress in improving local internet access.

Photo illustration
Posted

Mark Cockerill joined the Key Peninsula Community Council as a director last fall with no idea that he would soon dive into the abyss of local broadband access, or lack thereof, on the KP. KPC’s President Don Swensen asked Cockerill to head up its broadband project and he accepted the challenge.

Cockerill was a programmer and then software consultant, working on implementation projects all over the world before retiring with his wife Marie to the KP in 2005. But he said he didn’t know all the issues at hand, so he began educating himself. The 2019 Pierce County Broadband Connectivity and Access report by Magellan Advisors was a primer, and he spoke at length with people from CenturyLink and in Mason, Kitsap and Pierce counties.

Cockerill said that a deep local understanding of the broadband experience on the KP will provide information that could bring better service to the community, whether it is through coordination with Pierce County or independent local efforts. To that end, he has spent several months devising a survey strategy.

The short-term goal of the project is to survey a significant number of KP residents and use a data mapping tool to provide granular information about where providers are located and on internet quality. Cockerill thinks this information would give participants immediate actionable feedback, including learning about nearby providers and the availability of hotspots.

The longer-term goal is to leverage that information to bring reliable broadband service to the whole community. For example, providers may be drawn to specific areas if they have assurance of a high level of interest. Cockerill said he is intrigued by what Kitsap and Mason counties have done, in a “marriage of public utility and private enterprise,” to bring internet to their populations. The public utility district provided the backbone of service, then worked with neighborhoods to get bank loans, amortized over 20 years, to cover the final leg of laying cable and making the cost affordable.

The survey will be shared online and in print with the KP in late October. Cockerill plans to send emails to parents with students in KP schools and to local organizations, and will send a link to the survey to local Facebook groups. He wants all households to participate.

Cockerill said he saw the extent of the problem firsthand after working with local nonprofits to locate sites on the KP where students without internet at home could get Wi-Fi access to do their homework.

“For those students the playing field is not level at all; they have to work harder just to keep up,” he said. “It’s like part of the future is already being limited because of the digital divide. That’s what drives me on this project.”

Pierce County is moving forward with its broadband planning. CBG Communications evaluated county code, policies and standards to make sure there were no significant barriers, and its final report is nearing completion. Senior Legislative Analyst Hugh Taylor said that although CBG made some recommendations, including a “Dig Once” policy, most existing policies appeared to be provider-friendly.

CTC Technology and Energy was tasked with creating a strategy to facilitate broadband service in the community. Taylor said that involves understanding where the deficits are now, which providers are responsible for those areas, what kind of investment could be made to improve service, and who would make that investment, including cost estimates and potential funding strategies. He said the survey Cockerill is planning would help the work CTC is doing.

“The county has not necessarily committed to being a provider. The goal is to understand the situation and strategy to improve broadband,” Taylor said. CTC has reached out to the public utility districts, Peninsula Light Co. and Peninsula School District as part of its exploration. The final report is due at the end of the year.