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Fiber project opens door for better internet access

September 17, 2018

To upload a video to YouTube, business owner Corina Sahlin has to drive half an hour from her home in Marblemount to the Upper Skagit Library in Concrete.

Even when the library is closed, she sits outside in her car for hours waiting for a video to upload using the library’s Wi-Fi.

Sahlin is one of many who could benefit from a fiber optic backbone being constructed over the next two years by the Port of Skagit and the Skagit Public Utility District.

Construction began last month on the six-segment network, which will stretch from Anacortes to Concrete and provide high-speed internet. The network will have the potential of extending farther.

Sahlin is the owner of Marblemount Homestead, a business that teaches self-reliant, sustainable living through homesteading, cheese making and fermentation, both online and in person.

She has been teaching those skills at her home in Marblemount for more than a decade, but said she recognized about six years ago that not everyone wants to travel out to the “boonies” for a class.

In 2012, she took her business online and now has thousands of followers on multiple platforms.

But Sahlin said her reach online is limited by a lack of reliable internet access on her property.

“It really impacts my ability to reach my people and make money,” she said. “It’s very frustrating.”

Sahlin said her business lends itself to real-time interactions through Facebook Live or Google Hangouts, but she can’t use them with her current internet service.

She said she has tried several of the limited internet options available in her area. She paid $100 a month for satellite service that was slow, unreliable and couldn’t upload videos.

She’s since switched to T-Mobile after the company put in a tower at the Marblemount ranger station. She said T-Mobile is cheaper, but still not particularly reliable.

“People really want more of that live component and I just can’t do it,” she said of the ability to use interactive platforms.

The need

In a 2017 survey of east Skagit County residents and businesses conducted by the port, about 43 percent said their internet access is “somewhat reliable,” while about 18 percent said it is “not reliable.” Four percent described their access as “very reliable.”

“If you’re in Concrete right now, many businesses are not able to transmit data they need to,” said Port of Skagit Community Outreach Administrator Andrew Entrikin.

Currently, the majority of internet in Skagit County is provided through cable or copper wires, Skagit PUD IT manager Gary Chrysler said.

With this infrastructure, internet providers are able to offer limited bandwidth to customers.

A fiber optic network, on the other hand, has the capacity to carry much larger amounts of data, Chrysler said.

He likened the different infrastructures to waterlines. If copper is a half-inch pipe, fiber optics would be a 24-inch pipe, he said.

Because of the increased capacity, a fiber optic network will hopefully bring in more providers and drive prices down through competition, Chrysler said.

The port’s main goal is to provide better internet access to businesses, Port of Skagit Executive Director Patsy Martin said.

Em Beals, owner of 5b’s Bakery in downtown Concrete, said her business could benefit greatly from high-speed internet provided through the backbone.

With the business’ current service provided by WAVE, staff can only run one online system at a time, she said, and the Wi-Fi provided for customers frequently crashes.

When Beals orders products online, she said she has to make sure no one else needs the internet at that time.

Concrete Mayor Jason Miller said lack of reliable internet is unacceptable in the 21st century.

“I’m completely on board with the county’s backbone,” Miller said. “If private enterprise won’t do it, then by golly we’ll take it into our own hands.”

The plan

The fiber optic backbone project’s roots trace back to 2007, Martin said.

Verizon already had a fiber optic network in place near the port’s properties west of Burlington, but Martin said the company wouldn’t work with the port to serve it and its tenants.

“What we found is that we are so small that a lot of these big entities like Verizon and Comcast were not willing or able to serve a small entity like the port,” she said.

That left the port to find its own solution.

The city of Mount Vernon already had access to a fiber optic network that runs from Seattle along the Interstate 5 corridor, so the port extended that network to itself and its tenants in 2009.

In 2015, several other cities and towns in the county expressed interest in a fiber optic network, Martin said.

“Since then, we’ve been working on how to figure that out. To get broadband out to some of these smaller communities,” she said.

Martin said the port hopes to have all six segments of the $2.8 million backbone complete in 2020.

Segment one, in Anacortes, is complete. Segments two and three, which include Anacortes to Burlington, Anacortes to Mount Vernon and Anacortes to La Conner, are under construction and set to be complete in early 2019.

Segment four, which will bring the backbone to Sedro-Woolley, is halfway through the design process. Segment five, from Sedro-Woolley to Hamilton, was completed years ago by the PUD, Martin said. Segment six, which will get the backbone to Concrete, still needs funding.

Once the backbone is complete, internet service providers can lease space on the network and use it to provide their customers with high-speed internet.

Then cities, towns or private internet service providers can work with business or residential customers to build connections to the backbone, Entrikin said.

The port currently has interlocal agreements with the cities of Anacortes, Mount Vernon, Sedro-Woolley and Burlington to create connections from the backbone.

“The backbone connects up the city, then the city builds a system to distribute it within the city,” Martin said.

Looking forward

Anacortes is in the process of partnering with the port to construct a network that will serve businesses and residents in the downtown area.

Concrete School District Superintendent Wayne Barrett said his students would benefit from extending the backbone’s reach to residents.

The school is providing students in grades seven through 12 with Chromebooks for academic use this school year. While internet service in the schools is reliable, Barrett said there’s concern students won’t have internet access to use the devices at home.

“The impact is really to our kids and our families in the district,” he said. “So our hope for the future would be that they move (the network) further than downtown Concrete.”

Barrett estimates 25 percent of students in the district have reliable internet access at home.

Aside from reaching areas with little to no internet access, the backbone will also serve as a backup system for the network extending up I-5 from Seattle, Martin said. Currently, there’s no plan B in case the I-5 network goes down.

In addition to improving access for businesses currently operating in the county, Martin said the backbone could help bring new businesses to the area.

“We’re looking into if people will bring their businesses here if we have that industry standard internet speed,” she said.

Miller also sees the backbone as a catalyst for economic development.

“If we have reliable, high-speed internet access throughout the town that private providers can then tap into and feed into our residences and businesses, then existing businesses will have another tool in their toolbox to perform more efficiently, effectively and rapidly,” he said.

For now, the burden of extending the fiber optic network past the county-funded backbone or city-funded distribution networks will ultimately fall on the customer.

A home-based business in Concrete, for example, would need to work with an internet provider to construct a line extension. It’s unclear how financially feasible this would be for an individual business or resident.

But the backbone is a first step in bringing high speed internet to areas that desperately need it, Chrysler said.

“The backbone is what everyone will build off to get to the last mile,” he said.

Preliminary planning is underway to extend the backbone beyond Concrete, Entrikin said, but it’s no easy task.

“Building broadband infrastructure in our most rural areas is not simple, due to very high construction costs and challenging terrain,” he said. “If it were easy, the private sector would have already solved the problem.”

Overcoming these challenges will take a public-private partnership, Entrikin said.

The port hopes to partner with entities such as Puget Sound Energy, Seattle City Light and the state Department of Transportation to find cost-effective ways of building infrastructure to deliver high-speed internet east of Concrete.

Out in Marblemount, Sahlin recognizes it will likely be years before a fiber optic connection reaches her. In the meantime, she said she’ll continue to work around the lack of connectivity in creative ways.

“People are yearning for this kind of life,” Sahlin said of her classes on sustainable living. “For me, it’s about changing lives. And people are missing out on that because I can’t access them.”

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