Business

Port unveils plan to tackle internet ‘dead zones’ in rural parts of Whatcom County

The Port recently began applying for grants that would help pay for the estimated $6.8 million in construction costs to install three fiber optic routes that would go into rural Whatcom County, including the Kendall Valley.
The Port recently began applying for grants that would help pay for the estimated $6.8 million in construction costs to install three fiber optic routes that would go into rural Whatcom County, including the Kendall Valley. The Bellingham Herald file

Logging on the internet remains a difficult, expensive deal for some rural parts of Whatcom County, but the Port of Bellingham is hoping to change that.

The Port and its partners recently began applying for grants that would help pay for the estimated $6.8 million in construction costs to install three fiber optic routes that would go into rural Whatcom County, particularly near the Glacier, Deming and Kendall communities.

If grant money and other partnership commitments fall into place, construction could begin in 2020 but will likely take many years to complete, said Rob Fix, executive director at the port, in an email.

In a feasibility study that is being finalized, the port found large areas of Whatcom County that cannot get access to the internet, particularly around Highway 9 going north to the border. In other areas internet access is spotty and more expensive than what residents in Bellingham pay.

“It really lends to a lot of frustration and difficulties in our communities,” said Gina Stark, economic development project manager at the port, during a March 5 presentation to port commissioners.

Students have difficulty accessing internet

Part of the port’s feasibility study looked into the challenges rural residents face in trying to access the internet.

According to a survey of teachers in the rural school districts, 99 percent reported slow internet issues at school. All of the respondents said there were situations where students couldn’t complete homework because of no internet access. Nearly all (99 percent) of teachers that responded said they knew a student who did not have internet access; 68 percent said they knew of students who didn’t have access because that service wasn’t available.

Stark also noted the lack of internet service is a hindrance to economic development and is particularly hard for retail businesses that try to offer credit card payment options.

For businesses that do have internet access, Stark said they found instances where a company in rural Whatcom County was paying twice as much as a similar size business in Bellingham. For residents, the price tag can be around $160 a month, Stark said.

Why is rural Whatcom lacking in internet access?

Getting high-speed broadband capabilities to rural and under-served communities is challenging because of the high costs and a limited customer base, Fix said. Typically private companies would invest in the infrastructure in more urban areas.

“The private market has been reluctant to extend service to rural areas due to the low return on investment, “ Fix said.

The port began installing high-speed fiber within its port properties in the early 2000s, but couldn’t install that kind of infrastructure outside of its properties until a state law passed last year, Fix said.

Soon after that law passed, the port entered into an agreement with Public Utility District No. 1 to develop a plan for improving broadband connectivity. A variety of other stakeholders also are involved, including several Whatcom County cities.

Once the public infrastructure is in place, it can be leased to internet service providers. During the March 5 presentation Stark said they would expect multiple companies to make use of the infrastructure, providing some competition that would keep rates down. That’s what has happened in other areas that put in public fiber optic infrastructure.

Fix said the return on investment for the first two segments would be around 15 years, shorter if they receive more grant money to offset construction costs. The third segment is expected to be more costly, because much of it will be buried underground.

Fix believes this project would go a long way in stimulating economic development for small town businesses.

“Additionally, there are many prospective businesses which might relocate to Whatcom County’s rural areas to enjoy the high quality of life if not for the lack of high-speed internet access,” Fix said, adding that it is also important for educational opportunities, public safety and health care.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.
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