The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.
Expanding affordable internet services within Whatcom County by constructing an open-access fiber-optic broadband network is currently underway. Much of the effort occurs behind the scenes as our local governments secure funding and plan implementation.
I’ve advocated for broadband since moving to Whatcom County in 2010. The COVID-19 pandemic galvanized the necessity for high-speed internet services here in Whatcom as it did across the United States. Internet access became essential to work remotely, attend school from home, get healthcare using telemedicine and stay connected with friends and family via Zoom.
Broadband expansion is a complex problem that requires a large commitment of effort and money to solve. Federal and state governments have authorized funding to address these needs. Yet it remains difficult to know what progress has been made and what needs to happen next.
The Whatcom Public Utility District (PUD) and the Port of Bellingham have worked on providing broadband for Whatcom County. Here is what specifically has been done so far on broadband:
- A Port of Bellingham / Whatcom PUD study identified an approach to provide fiber broadband in rural areas with the benefit of creating a “fiber-backbone.”
- Port of Bellingham secured funding and has begun designing and building infrastructure north of Ferndale, north of Lynden and east of Deming. These projects are in partnership with private sector internet service providers (ISPs).
- The PUD conducted a study to explore creating a public ISP. This study was narrowly focused on creating a new public enterprise to serve new rural customers. The report suggests that it would be financially risky and uncompetitive.
- Both the PUD and Port have each moved forward with grant proposals to expand the broadband infrastructure to rural areas of the county.
- The PUD and Port are collaborating with the cities, county and other organizations in developing a digital equity plan for Whatcom County. This will prepare our community to apply for Broadband Equity Access and Development (BEAD) funding.
The Port and the PUD are focused on the unserved rural population. It will take a few years to provide coverage to rural residences. To avoid a local tax burden, our primary funding mechanism is federal and state funding.
Gaps still exist which need to be addressed. There are a substantial number of residents in Whatcom County who are underserved or poorly served. At present, the Port and PUD have no plan to directly address this problem although there is an indirect competitive pressure for the private sector internet providers to “do better.”
Even with this pressure, there are a substantial number of residents who lack the resources to afford the internet services that are available. Some of the private sector internet providers may have low-income options that can be leveraged. Digital inclusion is an important part of creating a more just society.
Three steps need to be taken to address these gaps.
- First, it is important to have a little patience. Infrastructure takes time to plan and build. We are not going to close the gaps instantly. It is going to take several years.
- Second, the PUD and Port have been leading the broadband effort but if we want to address the needs of the underserved we are going to need the engagement and support of other local governments. To directly challenge internet providers like Comcast, for example, will be fraught with challenges and can only be done with the strong support of the public.
- And third, addressing digital inclusion will require both resources and programs to support not only digital literacy but also the delivery of content that people need. These types of activities lie significantly outside the scope of activities that the PUD and Port have historically supported.
Our community has made significant progress with expanding broadband in rural areas and that work is ongoing. Leaders in the broadband effort are looking at how to expand our efforts and reach those that are poorly served.
To address this next set of challenges we need to increase the level of participation and include additional local governments. We should consider the creation of a new public enterprise to manage and grow our broadband infrastructure. Public engagement and support are essential to bringing about these changes.
The ultimate goal is affordable fiber-optic broadband for everyone in Whatcom County. We have a long way to go before reaching this goal, but we are on the way.
For more information see the Whatcom County Broadband Storymap.
— Contributed by Jamie Douglass
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