March 4, 2022
Broadband’s coming but cost, quality still in question
Chris O'Neill

Got broadband? That depends where you are, in Whatcom County. Service options are coming to many areas as yet unserved or underserved, but questions about cost and quality remain. Download speeds vary from high (green dots) to low (yellow) and very low (red) speeds; black dots indicate no service at those sites. (Washington Broadband Survey Results map)

March 4, 2022
Broadband’s coming but cost, quality still in question
Chris O'Neill

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Two years of pandemic isolation not only revealed how important internet connectivity is in today’s world but also exposed the stark divide between those with service and those without.

The shift to remote learning, remote social and medical services, and business conducted online only made life harder for many who had struggled earlier with no internet service or poor service in areas of rural Whatcom County. The task of providing reliable, low-cost internet service continues as the county emerges from the omicron cloud.

The Port of Bellingham’s Whatcom County broadband project plan is to install over 100 miles of fiber-optic cable in northern Whatcom County. Internet service providers will be able to lease access to the cable and provide their service to communities without high-speed service.

“The main goal of the Whatcom County broadband project is to provide affordable quality broadband to our community members who are underserved,” said Gina Stark, broadband manager for the Port of Bellingham. “That is the core goal and mission of this project.”

Stark explained that the project has been roughly three years in the making. It began in 2019 when the Port of Bellingham did a feasibility study on internet needs. Since then, the Port has secured approximately $10 million in grants to lay about 123 miles of cable in three segments.

“One of our projects, East Nooksack and North Mosquito Lake Road project, is already underway,” said Stark.

The cost of service to customers has been a concern, and Stark said that’s been taken into consideration.

“What we’re building is open access that allows internet service providers to work with us and then provide service to those customers,” Stark said. “This gives community members choices, which fosters competition, and it helps to keep the cost low.”

East Whatcom concerns

Internet service has been a concern of area residents and it was discussed at a Zoom meeting this week among members of the South Fork Valley Community Association and Whatcom County Public Utility District 1 commissioner Atul Deshmane. Participants discussed the Whatcom County broadband projects and their concerns about affordability as well as accountability of the internet service providers. 

“You come out here in the South Fork Valley and you might as well be in Alaska compared to other parts of the county,” said Jeff Margolis, chairman of the South Fork Valley Community Association. “Our mission is to build social capital and work for community integration and stability.”

Deshmane fielded questions from Margolis as well as several other concerned residents, but questions about how affordable internet is defined and what level of service is considered sufficient could not be answered. Participants agreed to reconvene when a representative of internet service provider Ziply could participate and answer questions.

“We resolved to try to assist and facilitate in any way that we could in bringing broadband access into South Fork Valley and the Foothills,” Margolis said. “It’s a long, slow boat and we’ll just take the cruise.”

Mark Seymour, proprietor of the Drayton Harbor Oyster Company restaurant in Blaine, was also interested in the changes coming from the Whatcom County broadband project. 

“My sister’s a [school] principal on the south of Bellingham so they were early in the pandemic having to provide internet and laptops to underprivileged families to allow them to attend school online. I think that was a bit of an eye opener,” Seymour said.

Opportunity in Blaine

“The internet is not something that I ever really think about as being an issue, but when you really do look at it, it’s a privilege because it isn’t cheap, and it isn’t everywhere,” he said.

Seymour said that when he decided to open his restaurant in 2015, he experienced just how limited internet service options and levels of service really were in Blaine.

“When we first opened the oyster bar, the only option in town was PogoZone, so I had PogoZone at the restaurant and in my house,” Seymour said. “Now we’ve gone to Comcast here at the restaurant to get a little more consistent service.”

Seymour said that although PogoZone’s line-of-sight style (wireless) internet was not consistent enough for the needs of his restaurant, he still used their service at his private residence even though Comcast had become available there years ago.

“Supporting local is really cool and PogoZone is a Whatcom County business so I’m proud to still have it at home … that’s perfect internet for what I need,” Seymour said. 

Seymour was excited to hear about the broadband project and looked forward to the benefits it could have on local businesses such as his restaurant. It could help tourism once the border opens up and he hoped more services such as free Wi-Fi hotspots for Canadian tourists could be made available in the future.

“They hop on the Wi-Fi immediately when they get here,” Seymour said. “If the city of Blaine was able to offer the public spaces with signage that said, ‘Hey, welcome visitors, free Wi-Fi,’ I mean, that’s going to draw people on its own.”

Not overnight

Although the wheels are in motion for better internet and accessibility, Stark stated that the change wouldn’t happen overnight. 

“We are estimating the completion of the projects to be no later than 2024,” Stark said. “That’s just an estimate, but we know this is critical, people need internet and access now.”

Stark said that even though this was a big win for the community, she and her colleagues would continue to push for similar projects in the future.

“We’re not done, we do have more work to do, and we recognize that there are community members who are not served,” Stark said. “We will continue to keep working until they are.”

 “We didn’t get here by ourselves, and we know that,” Stark said and acknowledged the partnership and support of Whatcom County, the PUD and the community.

— Reported by Chris O’Neill

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