In October Pierce County plans to sign a contract with a broadband franchise to provide high speed internet service through a privatized fiberoptic network to 526 households on the north Key Peninsula. The project is part of a multipronged plan to close the broadband divide separating the haves from the have-nots for an essential infrastructure.
The Key Peninsula project is one of two in the county approved in April following a request for proposals that went out in November 2021. With a deadline completion of three years, 35.1 miles of fiber will connect 526 homes to high-speed internet. The county will subsidize 70% of the total $5.1 million dollar price tag. The second project, in south Pierce County, is a collaboration with the Nisqually Tribe.
Funding comes through a $15 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act, the $1.9 trillion federal stimulus plan passed in 2021.
In a separate approach designed to attract service to un- and underserved households, the county announced an incentive plan in October, with approximately $5 million available. Astound Broadband (formerly Wave) and Comcast, the two cable internet providers on the Key Peninsula, are expected to participate. Wanrack, the company that laid the fiberoptic cable for the Peninsula School District, has expressed interest in partnering with a franchise owner and the county, according to Pierce County Council Chair Derek Young (D-7th, Gig Harbor).
The process for spending the final $5 million will be determined by the county council once the efficacy of its request for proposals and incentive approaches has been evaluated.
The council took some initial steps to close the broadband gap in 2018 with a study by Magellan Advisors. That report confirmed there were significant inequities in broadband access. In 2019 the council passed a resolution declaring that broadband is essential infrastructure and then worked to streamline building codes and policies that impeded expansion of broadband.
In early 2020, the council hired CTC Technology and Energy to develop a broadband strategic plan released in March 2021. CTC concluded that fiber was a more cost-effective solution than fixed wireless due to lower maintenance and replacement expenses and ease of expansion. The impact of satellite service, specifically SpaceX Starlink, was considered unclear at the time of the report.
The report identified four contiguous areas with no or inadequate internet (defined by download speeds of less than 25 Mbps and upload speeds less than 3 Mbps) affecting 14,000 households. The council declared these areas as broadband incentive districts. Two are on the Key Peninsula with 1,213 homes in the north and 2,079 in the south.
In June 2021, the responsibility for broadband planning and implementation was assigned to the Pierce County Planning and Public Works Department.
“The idea has been to think as broadly as possible and to be as flexible as possible to bring broadband to the areas in need,” said Debi Ross, strategy and performance division manager. “Our hope is that we have made the incentive proposal tasty enough that the franchise owners will be excited to enter into a partnership.”
“The incentive program really nudges providers to move into areas that might have been marginal in terms of profit,” Council Chair Young said. “The fact of a potential competitor changes the market, and a franchise wants to be the incumbent.”
Federal funding comes with some strings attached. All providers must participate in the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which allows eligible households to receive up to a $30 per month discount on internet service; up to a $75 per month discount if the household is on qualifying tribal lands; a one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop, tablet or desktop computer; and a low-cost service plan that may be fully covered through the ACP.
The current budget of $15 million will not be sufficient to bring internet to all the households in Pierce County. “This is not the end of investment in the expansion of broadband,” Ross said, “There are three additional major federal and state programs aimed at expansion.” The county plans to apply.
As the incentive program is being implemented, other plans are underway to bring high speed internet to parts of the Key Peninsula. Astound Broadband expects to install fiber to homes on Herron Island in 2023.
Mark Cockerill, who implemented the broadband survey for the Key Peninsula Community Council, invited Herron resident Eric Bergson to a 2019 meeting with representatives from Astound.
“I’ve been on the island for approximately 15 years begging for better internet,” Bergson said. “For as terrible as most of the KP is, the island is further limited by the one small suboceanic line that runs from the mainland. Everything I tried to think of was a swing and a miss.”
The company realized the population density made a project there economically viable, said Kevin Stamey, senior director of technical operations in Washington. “Oceanic cable placement is very expensive, and it would take a really long time for those permits, delaying a project like this for up to a couple of years,” he said.
Astound opted to use a microwave relay system to get a signal to Herron. The relay system permit might be approved by the end of the year, with a four- to five-month timeframe to get fiber to each home.
Stamey said that Astound is looking at other neighborhoods with enough density to make projects viable and that the company will participate in the county’s incentive program.
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