For many in rural communities across Thurston County, affordable, fast and reliable broadband service is hard to come by. To address the issue, the Nisqually Indian Tribe partnered with RedLine Consulting to identify areas where service is subpar and to install the necessary infrastructure to allow for better and more affordable broadband.
At the South Thurston Economic Development Initiative meeting held last month in Yelm, Nisqually Tribe Economic Development Manager Mike Mason provided an update on the progress of the broadband expansion project.
Mason stated that in-person broadband speed surveys in the area have been completed and noted the Tribe is in negotiations with two possible broadband providers for cheap gigabit internet service.
In an interview with the Nisqually Valley News Mason explained that RedLine Consulting President Paul Walk was there to help navigate the broadband industry.
“For broadband, you need somebody who really understands the broadband industry, how it’s hooked up, what it takes to put it in the ground, so from the ground to even the grant side, Paul assists us all the way through,” Mason said.
When it came to Thurston County, Walk said over 4,000 in-person speed surveys have been completed, though the online speed test is still available online at nisquallyspeedtest.com for those who want to test their connection’s speed.
“I don’t foresee an end to that, because as long as we can collect information it’s just going to assist us, but I think we have a fair assessment at this point of where Thurston County sits through the speed tests and the surveys,” Walk said.
While they have finished with the in-person speed tests in Thurston County, areas in Pierce County still need to be assessed through the in-person testing.
Walk has worked to reach out to existing broadband providers to see if they would be interested in installing infrastructure to allow for better internet service. Even if the providers aren’t interested, asking them is required for many of the grants they plan to apply for.
“We have multiple grants that we’re gonna be applying for. Our mission is to continue this process until all of Pierce and Thurston counties are served,” Walk said.
Walk is looking to test at least 10% of the population in any given area so they can apply for the grants. The speed of broadband from current providers in the areas that have been tested have speeds slower than 25 megabytes per second for downloads and three megabytes per second for uploads.
Walk said the interest from broadband providers have resulted in a mixed bag of reactions when they were asked if they wanted to get involved in providing higher internet speeds in more rural areas.
“Some ISPs are really interested in what we’re doing and discussing possible partnerships. (For) some ISPs, it’s just not in their way of business to work with outside entities and some are saying that as much as they would love to invest in these areas they just don’t have the capacity right now,” Walk said. “It varies from company to company and we really can’t blame any of them because these are rural areas that require a significant investment to serve, so the return on investment is just not there.”
That’s where the Nisqually Indian Tribe and Walk come in to help. Through the grants they aim to receive they are hopeful to secure the funding needed to build the infrastructure, which Walk stated was about 90% of that initial investment cost.
“From there, we’ll allow the providers to access that infrastructure at a reasonable cost to deliver services in a fair and competitive manner,” Walk said.
Walk also said the Nisqually Indian Tribe will maintain the broadband infrastructure using its own communication construction company, Nisqually Communication Services Government Corp.
“The company built its fiber-to-the-home project at the Tribe, and we delivered gigabit access to every member of the Tribe. They constructed that project and now they’ve been constructing them all over the region for ports, telephone providers, power companies like PSE,” Walk said.
The company was started in 2017 and the construction of the new broadband infrastructure began in 2018 for the Tribe. Evaluations for the possibility of constructing the same type of network in rural areas of Thurston and Pierce counties began shortly after in 2019.
“After they completed the fiber-to-the-home build and realized there were other areas in the same position as them that needed services but didn’t have them, they decided to go after funding to build that,” Walk said.
The Tribe’s broadband construction company allows them to not only build the networks but to train the people necessary to maintain it. They work with manufacturers to certify people in underground communications construction.
Since the Tribe has the ability to maintain the network internally, it can cover a lot of the costs the broadband providers can’t afford.
Mason added the system is completely open access, meaning the hook up fee the Tribe charges for providers is cheap.
“It keeps that access open to any provider that wants to be on there. And that’s the goal of this, keeping it open access. What that does is creates competition and competition usually lowers the price. That’s the goal,” Mason said.
Mason added that while some of the broadband providers may not like the idea of open access networks and competition, it’s better for the customers.
“It’s not fair to the consumers and that’s what we’re working on. We’re not trying to put anybody out of business. All we’re trying to bring is affordability to the end user,” Mason said.
Being able to provide customers in rural areas with more than one broadband service provider is another goal, according to Walk.
“What we found through the surveys and talking to customers was that regardless of the speed, even if they had quality speed, the people who were upset the most were the ones who only had access to one service provider,” Walk said.
Some of the providers also had issues maintaining internet speed consistency. According to Walk, the providers don’t have an obligation to ensure consistency.
“That’s why they put that wording, it’s very specific language in all the contracts that says, ‘best effort,’ and that’s all they have to put in there to get away with charging you whatever they want and you get whatever (speed) you get,” Walk said.
The Tribe has a five year plan set up with its current funding. They plan to continually apply for more funding as the project progresses.
“Given that each one of these open access networks has a long term commitment to the grant, the Tribe is in this for the long haul, at least 20 years,” Walk said.
Walk added that Washington state is expected to receive an estimated $1 billion through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, $14 million of which has already been given to the Tribe for its broadband expansion efforts.
The Tribe aims to break ground on more projects next year after the engineering plans and the permitting process are completed.
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