Earlier this month, Clallam County received notification of a $4.25 million grant for expansion of broadband to lesser served areas west of Port Angeles.
It’s the first of many more possible grant opportunities for local broadband expansion, including the Sequim area, said Karen Affeld, executive director of the North Olympic Development Council.
Getting that funding and infrastructure for faster internet in place, however, could take awhile.
“Unfortunately, it is a long game matching the requirements with the funding source. From there, it’s a process to build it,” Affeld said.
“But we all know we need it.”
The state’s Public Works Board announced Clallam County’s grant as part of $44.7 million in funding for 15 broadband projects in Washington to increase internet availability to low access areas. About $1.1 million was allocated to Jefferson County PUD for expansion in Discovery Bay, tentatively set to begin next May.
Funding is part of the legislature’s infrastructure investment of federal grants for broadband expansion with grants conditional to receipt of federal funds, state officials report.
Chelsea Millar, board of Clallam County commissioners’ analyst, said the county was elected by the Clallam County Broadband Team to serve as the lead entity for the grant and team members from across the county felt the stretch from the U.S. Highway 101/U.S. Highway 112 intersection to Coville would be most competitive for the grant.
Construction will tentatively begin in September 2022, she said.
However, it could take two to three years to develop because of supply backups and other issues, team members say.
The grant only covers a portion of the full project, Affeld said, and this first grant will likely take fibers as far as Freshwater Bay.
“We can’t say specifically yet,” she said. “The funding will fund design and build fibers to the home.”
If fully funded, it would bring high speed internet to about 1,600 homes from the highways’ intersection west to the Joyce area, Affeld said.
Right now, most residents in those areas have less than 10 megabyte download speed per second, she said.
When in place, the internet will be available from private providers, not the county, she added.
Leading up to applying for the grant, “there were several meetings to discuss project ideas based on areas that are not served and under-served in Clallam County,” Millar said.
County representatives will hear back on another grant from the state’s Broadband Office in January on whether it can complete the extension to Joyce, team representatives report.
Feasibility, next steps
The Clallam County Broadband Team, coordinated by Affeld and her team, consists of cities in Clallam County, the Port of Port Angeles, local tribes and local businesses. The team collaboratively completed a feasibility study last April with a consulting firm. The team held informational meetings in October of 2020 seeking residents’ input and asking them to test their home internet speeds.
Some Sequim area residents reported sluggish speeds across the area, with business and municipality leaders saying there were many difficult areas for residents to access high speed internet no matter the service.
Affeld said internet speed tests continue to help the team gauge where need is in Clallam County. Residents can take the test at noprcd.org/clallam-broadband-team. Residents can also email to firstname.lastname@example.org if unable to take the test, which can be added to the ongoing analysis.
One portion of the feasibility study showed team members that some areas are already targeted by companies through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to expand broadband access in rural America.
“Some of the areas where we see need, we can’t get access there until agencies have time to make improvements,” Affeld said. “It makes sense. We don’t want to fund two groups for the same project.”
Danielle Spears, a spokesperson for Centurylink/Lumen, said they’ve “made significant investments in our network to bring broadband to every corner of our service territory where it is economically feasible.”
“We look forward to using fiber to deliver gigabit service to many currently unserved households across rural America starting in 2022 via our participation in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund,” she said.
“We’re planning to bring fiber to the doorsteps of more than 4,800 residents and businesses in Clallam County over the course of the program’s six-year timeline.”
The Broadband Team plans to meet in early January to discuss future funding and additional projects, Affeld said, along with topics, such as access, affordability and equity.
Expansion in Sequim will be a part of upcoming discussions, Affeld said.
“We want to make sure anyone who wants access can have it,” she said. “It’s going to take a while to get there.”
Affeld said with the limited people and high costs for installation, it’s tough for businesses to invest in expansion but grants like the county’s “changes the game.”
Millar said the team will also continue to pursue grants.