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Fourth of July in the Horse Heaven Hills.
Photo by Jason Wiley

WestBred

POLICY

Rural residents are looking for connection

July 2020
By Trista Crossley


There are lots of advantages to living in a rural location, but fast, reliable internet service is often not one of them.

As farm equipment becomes more computerized and sophisticated, an internet connection has become a critical link for growers to utilize GPS, manage data and help facilitate equipment repairs and upgrades, not to mention online interactions with U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies. In recent months, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the broadband deficiencies many rural residents and communities face as Washington students shifted to distance learning and many employees began working from home.

The Washington State Legislature has recognized the need for widespread broadband access across the state. In 2018, HB 2664, sponsored by Rep. Mary Dye (R-Pomeroy), was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee. The bill, among other things, extended telecommunications authority to Washington state ports in order to extend rural broadband infrastructure. In 2019, SB 5511, sponsored by Sen. Lisa Wellman (D-Mercer Island), established the Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO) to help develop broadband service to unserved and underserved areas through competitive grants and loans.

WSBO’s mission is to ensure that all Washington state citizens and businesses have access to affordable, reliable, redundant and scalable/future-proof broadband technologies. The agency’s goals are ambitious—by 2024, a minimum of 25MB per second download and 3MB per second upload should be available to all areas of the state; by 2026, anchor institutions should have 1GB per second upload and download speeds; and by 2028, all citizens and businesses should have 150/150MB per second upload and download speeds (when upload and download speeds are the same, that’s often referred to as being symmetrical).

“The 150 symmetrical is a significant number. It is a very aggressive goal, probably one of the most aggressive goals in the country, in my opinion,” said Russ Elliott, director of the WSBO.

Elliott said there are different ways to get to that goal. One way is to construct infrastructure similar to what we have now, infrastructure that will continually need investment and updates and will eventually need to be replaced.

“That’s kind of been the tradition, especially in our rural areas where we don’t have an economic model that makes sense for investment,” he explained. “What 150 symmetrical does for me is to stop considering that way as a path forward and to start to envision future-proof, scalable infrastructure in the state. It’s a dance that we have to do between ensuring people have connectivity today, but also ensuring that my 5-year-old will benefit from this when he’s paying for it in 20 years.”

According to broadbandnow.com, Washington state ranks 16th in the nation for broadband access, and 94.6 percent of residents have access to wired broadband at 25 MB per second or faster. In addition, 94.4 percent of residents have access to DSL service, but only 36 percent have access to fiber-optic cable. The website also breaks down broadband access by county (see sidebar).

Those numbers might seem a little high to many Eastern Washington wheat farmers, something that Elliott acknowledged.

“Based on federal maps, Washington state is pretty well covered, but there are areas identified as being served that are coming back as severely underserved,” he said.

One of the things the WSBO is doing is trying to identify the unserved and underserved parts of the state by asking residents to participate in a speed test. The state Legislature has defined underserved at a minimum 25/3 MB per second (download/upload speed); anything under that minimum is considered unserved. Elliott said underserved could also be a quality of service or affordability metric.

The federal government has acknowledged that broadband maps are inaccurate, largely based on how internet service providers (ISPs) were able to define what a served area meant. In July 2019, the Federal Communications Commission launched a new broadband mapping effort that requires ISPs to “submit granular data maps of the areas where they have broadband-capable networks and make service available.”

Elliott said he would put Washington state in the top 10 percent of states for being very forward thinking in regard to broadband infrastructure that is being deployed, especially the partnership between public and private investment.

“This is a very delicate dance. When we start to talk about public and private monies potentially being applied in similar areas, it gets to be a very sensitive discussion,” he said. “We need to honor private investment, but we need to make certain everyone in the state has access. I think Washington is forward thinking and one of the best states in connection, but we also have some challenges, such as an economic balance of connectivity in deep rural areas and affordability in our more urban areas.”

That interplay between public and private investment was one of the issues that Dye ran into when she began working on rural broadband policy.

“You can’t put a legislatively funded network over a privately funded one, but there’s no jurisdiction over where and what they (private investments) do. We need to have networks that will reach out to rural communities and have them be publicly built infrastructures that the private sector can lease into,” she explained.

Dye is also a wheat farmer in Pomeroy and has first-hand experience struggling to connect to the internet in order to get farming business done. She expressed frustration that ISPs seem to “cherry pick” the customers they provide service to, bypassing mom-and-pop businesses in favor of more lucrative ones, or charging extremely high prices to hook into their backbone network.

“We are here in our tractors, running the satellite for GIS, running hands free, getting data points every foot across fields, but we have to drive down to the markets in Pomeroy to share with our consultant in Winnipeg,” Dye said. “They (ISPs) say it’s too expensive to build out to that guy at the end of the gravel road. That guy is running a major, million dollar business, but because he’s a farmer, he doesn’t count.”

Dye’s legislation allows public entities, like ports, to build open access networks and then lease access to those networks to private companies. This arrangement helps negate the high cost of installing the infrastructure in rural areas, a cost that is hard for private companies to recoup.

“It’s a process proven to be a perfect ladder for rural broadband,” she said.

NoaNet is another example of the effort to provide rural broadband access through a public and private partnership. NoaNet was started in 2000 by a group of public utility districts (PUDs) to market their own internet networks to ISPs. It’s a nonprofit organization supported solely through revenues and traditional lending institutions. In recent months, NoaNet has been reaching out to Eastern Washington grower groups, such as the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, to try to connect with growers and understand where service is lacking and how close those areas are to NoaNet’s network, said Craig Nelsen, COO of NoaNet.

“Once we determine that, we could start engaging with farmers and looking to see if it is economically feasible to get fiber to their facility, or it may be too far (for fiber), but we can tap off our fiber network and shoot a wireless signal over to their farm,” Nelsen said.

After COVID-19 closed schools and sent workers home, NoaNet worked with the WSBO and Washington State University Extension to put up temporary, drive-in Wi-Fi hotspots across the state to help students continue their education. Nelsen said the pandemic has shone a light on the need for broadband access, and he believes now is the time to strike to come up with ways to serve rural areas affordably.

“We look at fiber first, wireless second and then we look at cell providers to see if we can do a small cell application in a community,” Nelsen said. “I think there are a lot of different things in the works to try to find more affordable ways to get internet to these (unserved or underserved) communities.”

In small cell applications, distribution cans are attached to utility light poles or billboards and receive a broadband signal from a cell tower. The cans then broadcast a wireless signal throughout a community that consumers can hook into. A fixed wireless system relies on line-of-sight to deliver internet access to consumers via radio waves, which can often achieve faster speeds and lower latency than a satellite connection.

Nelsen said NoaNet will continue to work closely with communities and the WSBO to identify opportunities to deliver affordable and reliable broadband access to underserved areas of the state.

WSBO director Elliott said at this point, the discussion needs to happen at the community level to identify needs, rather than relying on ISPs to provide a solution. Elliott has been appointed to an FCC ag taskforce adoption subcommittee where he hopes to influence decision making.

“This lemon called COVID-19 has turned into lemonade for this industry,” Elliott said. “It hasn’t changed the discussion. This is the same discussion we’ve been having pre-COVID—affordability and access. What it’s done is really turned the heat up.”