Making Connections: Port, Washougal businesses focus on bringing faster internet to rural areas

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When Krista Cagle moved to a house north of Washougal nearly four years ago, she knew she could compromise high-speed internet for the chance to own property in a rural area. What Cagle didn’t count on was the COVID-19 pandemic, which underscored how badly she needed faster internet service.

“I can’t really do Zoom meetings, especially if I have some sort of presentation to do, because my internet is going to cut out,” said Cagle, finance director for the Port of Camas-Washougal. “All of a sudden, this box pops up that says, ‘Your Internet connection is unstable.’ Every time I see this, I know if I’m the one talking, no one will hear what I’m saying I have a daughter that goes to Cape Horn-Skye (elementary school), and she was trying to make the school on a tablet and used some of the bandwidth sometimes. It’s not ideal. And we don’t have cable TV, so we rely on streaming – Hulu, Netflix, all that, and sometimes they just don’t work.

The Port of Camas-Washougal is currently seeking solutions to help Cagle and other rural East Clark County residents struggling with slow internet speeds.

At their March 2 meeting, the port commissioners agreed to send an application to the Washington State Department of Commerce for a $50,000 grant that would help the port fund a feasibility and planning study on the installation of dark fiber infrastructure – fiber optic cables installed in the ground that network service providers can use to meet future bandwidth needs – in East Clark County.

The State Council for Community Economic Revitalization’s Rural Broadband Program provides low-interest loans and grants to local governments and federally recognized Indian tribes, funding the cost of building infrastructure which provides high-speed, free-to-air broadband service to underserved rural communities for community economic development purposes, according to its website.

“Looking at state legislative activity, there (are) a lot of bills and a lot of funding coming on broadband later in the year, and I think we’re timing our involvement almost perfectly for to be able to do something,” said Port Commissioner John Spencer at the Port meeting on March 2. “I’m actually very excited about it and I think there’s a good chance we’ll be able to help our community here.”

The port plans to match the potential $50,000 Department of Commerce grant with $12,500 of its own funds.

In the resolution it passed on March 2, the Harbor Commission said it “believes that increasing broadband access and connectivity to our unserved (and) underserved area will significantly enhance the East Clark County’s economy and expand opportunities for gainful employment”.

Port officials heard Kara Riebold and Joe Poire, chief operating officer and director of Petrichor Broadband, a public company formed in 2020 by the ports of Kalama, Ridgefield, Bellingham, Pasco, Whitman County and Skagit County, provides services consulting and broadband network management services for public agencies, including other ports, tribes, counties, cities, utility districts and industrial development areas, throughout Washington State.

Camas-Washougal Port Executive Director David Ripp said port leaders have agreed to continue talking with Petrichor representatives with the goal of “seeing how we can help or work together.”

“Commissioner Spencer and I met with Petrichor to discuss our next steps regarding our broadband, particularly in our Port District, and fundamentally the discussion was about the importance of knowing what is currently served and what is not. not served, as well as the current speed of service for our rural areas,” Ripp said. “The most important thing is to have Petrichor’s help throughout this process. They think our project is eligible (for the grant).

Washougal’s internet provider has also focused on rural connectivity

The Federal Communication Commission defines broadband as at least 25 megabytes per second for downloads and three megabytes per second for uploads.

“Our area outside the city limits certainly doesn’t achieve that for any of these services,” said Cory Schruth, general manager of NocTel Fiber, a Washougal-based internet provider.

Cagle agreed.

“In August, I was really struggling, and I did an internet speed test and sent a screenshot to our IT (department) at work,” she said. “My download speed was 8.5 megabytes per second and my upload was 0.13 megabytes. Our IT guy said, “The download speed is way too slow – it needs to be at least one megabyte.” I’m shocked you can even email.

According to Schruth, the ability to connect high-speed broadband Internet service to residences in rural East Clark County is hampered by a variety of challenges.

“A lot of the areas we work in actually don’t have telephone poles, which makes it even more (difficult). In fact, installing a conduit and putting the fiber underground takes a lot of time. It’s not like in the city, where you’re going to hook fiber into existing telephone poles and run direct lines to people. It’s a little more complex than that,” he said, adding that East Clark County also has many rocky areas. “Trying to get through this stuff is what slows us down. In rural areas, there are definitely a lot of hurdles and hurdles, and our team is very, very good at overcoming them all.

Equipment age also contributes to slowdowns, Schruth said.

“Ziply has taken over a lot of legacy, very old and undermaintained gear from previous vendors, whether it’s GTE, Horizon or Frontier,” he said. “These areas were simply forgotten; this is why our slogan at Noctel is “fiber for the forgotten”. Ziply has done a good job, but they have a lot of work to do because they don’t just serve the Washougal area – they have 800 markets they are trying to solve at once.

Cagle said his provider Ziply told him that his Internet service was limited by his bandwidth.

“When we talk to Ziply, they say, ‘You have the fastest internet available,'” she said. “It’s based on copper wires, and there’s not a lot of bandwidth, and it’s shared among all the Ziply people who live in that area. When you get over 400 households, I don’t even know not how much, trying to use the same service at the same time, it drags on and we struggle. I did some research to try to find another option. I contacted NocTel, and unfortunately they are only at a mile from my home A mile is a long way when you hope to put on real fiber.

Like Cagle, Harbor Commissioner Larry Keister lives in rural Washougal. Rather than struggle with slow internet speeds at home, Keister went to the port office to participate in virtual meetings during the pandemic.

“(Rural areas) are where it’s expensive, and that’s why we have really bad Wi-Fi connections,” Keister told the other harbor commissioners at the March 2 meeting. “Nobody wants to spend money installing the cables.”

Schruth hasn’t let these types of obstacles stop him from trying to bring high-speed internet to the Camas-Washougal countryside. In 2018 Schruth launched NocTel Fiber, originally known as Ammeter Fiber Network, after relocating from Portland to rural Washougal.

“I started a telecommunications company (which) provides voice over IP services primarily to business, education and government over a decade ago,” he said. “(In 2018) I talked to my employees and we all decided to cross the river and open an office in downtown Washougal. It worked pretty well and also allowed me to sell my house in Portland and search for property in the Washougal area.

After buying property on Ammeter Road, Schruth soon found he was having trouble with his rural internet connection in Washougal.

“I said, ‘Great, we’ll just call Comcast and get service and we’ll be fine. Then I had the same awareness that everyone has when they move to this area. I did a bit of research and started talking with some of the neighbors, and realized that (internet connectivity) was a big deal. A two to three megabyte DSL (digital subscriber line) was what they usually got on good days, barely enough for emailing, streaming, web surfing or anything like that,” said he declared.

Schruth decided to build a small network to allow people in the area to increase their Internet connection speed from one megabyte per second to around 50 megabytes per second.

“I started looking around a bit and found microwave routes to provide us with bandwidth from East Vancouver to the top of the mountain,” he said. “We connected the first 12 houses on our side, and it went extremely well. I thought this would be a good short term solution as we continue to work through all the hoops of government to get bandwidth up the hill.

Word of Schruth’s network quickly spread across social media, and within a year it had 44 homes in its system. NocTel Fiber has connected eight rural neighborhoods with Internet service and is currently working on a ninth.

“We have quite a few online customers, and everyone gets a minimum of 50 megabytes, and we also have additional faster service plans,” Schruth said. “We’re not the cheapest game in town, but we’re the most consistent. We are able to provide and guarantee these speeds.

Now the company is determined to find what Schruth calls “the areas that are hurting the most.”

“(What the port does) seems like an interesting concept, and there could be potential synergies there,” Schruth said. “Obviously we don’t want to create too much competition. The competition is good, but we all want to work together to really connect 100% of our community and not try to overbuild ourselves. That’s kind of what started our whole game as well. We only work in areas that Comcast and Ziply weren’t interested in. That was 100% our goal, to reach out and get people online.

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