The Pierce County Council unanimously approved an appropriation of $15 million from the county’s 2020-2021 biennial budget to support partnerships, seed money and matching funds for grants to provide or improve broadband services in underserved areas of Pierce County at its July 6 meeting.
The funds came to Pierce County from the federal American Rescue Plan Act.
Pierce County Councilmember and Chair Derek Young (D-7th District, including Key Peninsula) said high speed broadband access has become a central part of today’s economy. He co-sponsored the ordinance allocating the money from the county budget.
“We know how important it is to connect unserved parts of Pierce County,” Young said. “Key Peninsula is certainly on top of that list. The county’s investment, combined with state and federal dollars, will be prioritized in those areas first. The request for proposals is going out shortly, so we’ll have more details about the plan soon.”
Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office, is no stranger to the challenges surrounding broadband equality in rural areas. He held the same post in Wyoming before his Washington appointment in October 2019.
“The start of every brilliant conversation around broadband begins with, ‘What can we do as a community and how do we support ourselves?’ ” Elliott said.
It was the same question the Key Peninsula Community Council asked itself.
Mark Cockerill is the broadband subcommittee chair for the community council and started gathering information before the pandemic. They developed and conducted their own online survey that received nearly 500 responses. The data was analyzed and shared with Hugh Taylor, principal policy analyst for the Pierce County Council, and added depth to the county analysis.
In a presentation Taylor made to the community council in July he said, “Dealing with the remote work and education has illustrated the need to have good, fast and reliable internet connections to every home and business.” The county’s broadband study revealed that two of the four unserved areas in large contiguous pieces in Pierce County are located on the Key Peninsula.
“We’re all connecting and really communicating with each other now,” Cockerill said. In a recent meeting initiated by Elliott, Cockerill told KP News he met with the state, the county and Fred Lutz of Wave Broadband, who expressed interest in possibly expanding portions of its existing network on the KP.
“It’s a beginning,” Cockerill said. “Century–Link told us they had no interest in replacing its copper with fiber optic here. There’s not enough money in it for them.”
Chris Hagel, director of digital learning of Peninsula School District, said he couldn’t agree more about the need for more accurate information about broadband service on both the Key and Gig Harbor peninsulas. The district is helping to lead an effort, along with others, encouraging residents to complete a survey developed by the Washington State Broadband Office from their homes.
“It’s a two-minute test. We want everybody on both the Key Peninsula and the Gig Harbor peninsula to run that test so we can actually get good data to know what people’s true broadband looks like in their homes,” Hagel said.
PSD recently included links to the test in its enrollment system to encourage parents to complete the survey.
Hagel told KP News the district gave portable hotspots to over 600 families last year and will be doing it again for families who need them.
“We knew this before the pandemic but we really know it now that whether we’re fully virtual or in a regular school year (which for most kids is the plan for this year), is kids still need access,” he said. “It’s an equity issue for every kid not to have access at home to get on the internet.”
The hotspots worked for most but not all families. Hagel said there are places on the KP where there is no cell service. Some students went to YMCA Camp Seymour or the Red Barn to do their schoolwork when classes were all online.
There are some areas in the state where school districts, police, fire and park departments are teaming up and building internet networks. PSD discussed options like that with the Key Peninsula Fire Department, but the area is limited by the lack of locations available for piggybacking.
“Even between all of our school district sites, the fire department sites and the park, the technology struggles through all the trees and over the hills,” Hagel said.
Fiber optic cables are being strung along the KP Highway as part of a 38-mile PSD fiber optic network connecting its schools. At press time, that work was taking place between Key Peninsula Middle School and the new Evergreen Elementary School. Hagel said the lines will come up to Key Center and split to head in one direction to Vaughn Elementary School and in the other to Minter Creek Elementary via Creviston Drive NW. From Minter Creek the fiber will go north into Kitsap County and back down to district headquarters in Purdy.
“We decided not to build the network over the Purdy Spit; there wasn’t a good way to do it. The only other option was to go up and around the water,” Hagel said. PSD will connect all the schools in Gig Harbor and is “hopeful to have the first school up by the end of August, and that will be Swiftwater Elementary, our brand new school over by the Y in Gig Harbor.”
PSD plans to bring Evergreen Elementary online next, Hagel said. “Luckily, we still have our connection through CenturyLink to Evergreen so the school can be run just in case the network doesn’t get done in time for the beginning of the school year.”
CenturyLink, owned by Lumen Technologies, is divesting itself from 20 states with the sale of its business assets to the private equity company Apollo Global Management in August. CenturyLink operations in Washington state and 15 other mostly western states and Florida were not included in the sale. What that means for future infrastructure investment in rural areas is uncertain.
Elliott recalled his time back in Wyoming when CenturyLink successfully relinquished its carrier of last resort responsibilities in Wyoming. “They turned everything over to HughesNet which, in the end, I thought was very short sighted and not a win for the citizens in rural Wyoming. Imagine that’s your voice and your 911 service.”
“I contend that Wave will be a player. Know that broadband doesn’t build itself overnight,” he said. “It takes some time, but this is the groundwork for what will be a successful outcome if we play our cards right here.”
To take the Washington State Broadband Survey go to www.commerce.wa.gov or bit.ly/3zsyYXw
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