Over the River and Through the Woods: How Broadband Reaches Rural Washington

Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) is changing how Washington residents surf the web. Metropolitan cities like Seattle and Bellevue have long had access to broadband connections, enabling the Pacific Northwest to stay at the forefront of many existing and emerging industries. However, through an infusion of nearly $140 million in federal grants from the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), NoaNet is adding 1,000 miles of broadband all across the state. This expansive project, one of the largest in the country, will bring reliable, high-speed Internet to nearly 2,000 hospitals, libraries, schools and universities in rural Washington communities.

Internet has come a long way since its dial-up days. Broadband is up to 100 times faster than connecting using telephone lines, and lets users download and stream larger amounts of data. Additionally, customers can make international calls with the same quality as local calls, but for a fraction of the cost. Large Internet providers have seen the economic benefit of broadband installation in large, thriving cities such as Seattle, but this creates a cycle of concentrated growth: companies don’t want to establish office locations where there is unreliable, slow connectivity, and Internet providers don’t want to link to rural towns if the payoff doesn’t offset the cost of establishing the infrastructure. The result is that while large cities quickly grow into high-tech oases, rural communities that need the most expansion are left behind. United States Ambassador and former Washington state governor Gary Locke says, “In a globalized 21st century economy, when you don’t have regular access to high-speed Internet, you don’t have access to all the educational, business and employment opportunities it provides.” That’s where NoaNet comes in.

NoaNet is a non-profit mutual corporation located in Tacoma, Washington that has provided wholesale telecommunications to the Pacific Northwest since 2000. The company was formed from numerous Washington Public Utilities Districts (PUDs) all over the state to ensure local quality Internet access, even outside metro areas. It became apparent that streamlining energy generation and load management was essential to counteract a potential resource shortage during the impending energy crisis of the 1990’s. After analyzing broadband use in several rural communities, NoaNet realized that there was a serious need to interconnect these smaller markets with metro areas by way of a high-capacity telecommunications infrastructure. Today, NoaNet’s mission is to provide a reliable public open-access broadband network for provincial areas of Washington, using over 1,800 fiber miles (the number of conduit strands multiplied by the total conduit length) to reach more than 260,000 customers.

To fund their goal of an interconnected Washington state, NoaNet first had to apply for the Department of Commerce’s NTIA Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). Only state agencies or nonprofits can be approved, and the application must pass a technical review by at least three experts before being considered. There are three categories in which a venture must excel in order to qualify for federal grant money: it must use state of the art fiber-optic cables to connect “community anchor institutions” such as schools and hospitals, establish accessible computer facilities to be used by underserved populations, and increase Internet usage with digital literacy training and other outreach programs within the community. The broadband network must be able to be easily updated in the future, and can collaborate with local authorities to properly address the state’s broadband needs. Although the NTIA is authorized to use approximately $240 million in resources for this endeavor, the amount of money awarded depends on the specifics of the project, including each state’s unique demographic and geographic features. The NTIA hopes that “in the long term, these investments will help bridge the digital divide, improve access to education and healthcare services, and boost economic development for communities held back by limited or no access to broadband – communities that would otherwise be left behind.”

NoaNet’s broadband expansion project faced some serious challenges right from the start, including a compressed schedule with strict procurement and contracting rules, as stipulated by the BTOP grant. The project needed to be completed three years from the time the federal grant was awarded to NoaNet, comply with all National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements, and get a green light from 29 federally recognized Native American tribes whose reservations and historic lands the broadband conduits were projected to travel through. Construction was expected to take place near historically significant Washington landmarks like the Lewis and Clark Trail, the native habitats of over 80 threatened or endangered Pacific Northwest species, as well as crossing over the Columbia and Snake Rivers, which are home to one of the largest populations of ocean fish that return to fresh water to spawn. Keeping all of these criteria in mind, NoaNet set out to maximize the full potential of a statewide broadband network.

Since the beginning of NoaNet’s Washington broadband expansion in 2009, one of the largest in the country, the project has directly created over 600 jobs in the state. The company wanted everyone involved to benefit, not just the PUDs, and so it developed partnerships with local and county authorities, tribes and Port Districts to make the venture run as smoothly as possible. The NoaNet team had a clear idea of the end goal they wanted to accomplish, and was able to react and prioritize as new challenges arose. For example, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011 created a serious shortage of fiber used in the conduits. By making fiber acquisition and delivery the most immediate issue that needed to be solved, NoaNet was able to respond quickly enough to finish the expansion on-time, despite the already-compressed 3 year schedule. Because of the cooperation of everyone involved, Washington’s broadband enhancement resulted in no injuries or legal actions, and connects 170 rural communities all over the state.

King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties are by far the most populated areas of Washington State, and the most profitable for large commercial broadband providers. But for districts further east, being connected to online resources is more important than ever because they are less populated. Schools and businesses in these areas deserve the same opportunities as those in metropolitan cities. Washington Senator Patty Murray says, “Broadband Internet is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity – for small businesses looking to expand and create jobs, and for communities hoping to provide families with access to better healthcare and better education.” Specifically, NoaNet will improve 911 and police response times, provide remote access to online college courses, streamline government permit and training processes, and boost credit card and Internet-based e-commerce in rural, predominantly agricultural Washington communities.

The NoaNet expansion was so successful in connecting people across the state that it received a second federal grant to continue Internet growth, adding another 600 miles in a project that is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2013. Other states can learn from this example: “Washington is poised to tap the potential of statewide broadband,” NoaNet says, “Communities are mobilizing and working together to create access to affordable, robust broadband services that will be lifelines of prosperity for generations to come.”

Disclaimer: This article was originally ghost-written for Angela Bennink at NoaNet, and will be published in the September 2013 issue of OSP Magazine. The final version has passed through several rounds of edits, but this first draft was created in full by Louisa Gaylord.


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