A new bill headed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, if signed, will clear the way for the Port of Ridgefield to become a wholesale provider of broadband internet services for the Discovery Corridor.
The bill, HB 2664, which passed unanimously in the House and Senate, removes a requirement that only let rural ports provide wholesale broadband services if they had fewer than 100 residents per square mile, which had disqualified the Port of Ridgefield. The change will open the way for the port to start construction on a new 42-mile, $2.5 million loop of dark fiber around the city, said Nelson Holmberg, vice president of innovation at the Port of Ridgefield.
“The port was created to provide infrastructure in our community in order to create jobs and economic development,” Holmberg said. “This is one of the tools we need in our toolbox to do that.”
Businesses considering the Discovery Corridor, along with some that are already there, have struggled with the lack of broadband capacity in the area. Adding the fiber loop will not only help existing businesses thrive, but it will also help economic developers draw more industry to the area, said Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC).
“Readily available broadband access is quickly becoming a foundational requirement across all sectors considering expansion or relocation,” Bomar said. “For the cities of Ridgefield and La Center, this investment will create more direct business opportunities, but also help foster a community culture of innovation, allowing for more home-grown talent and enterprises to flourish.”
Holmberg became interested in the idea of the port becoming a wholesale broadband provider after a May 2015 meeting of Washington public ports in Spokane. In the meeting, Joe Poire, executive director of the Port of Whitman County, discussed how his port was able to become a provider after buying dark broadband infrastructure from a private company in 2000.
At the time, the law didn’t let any ports become wholesale broadband providers. But the Port of Whitman County successfully lobbied to change the law for rural communities, Holmberg said.
After hearing the presentation, Holmberg and others from the Port of Ridgefield decided to visit the Port of Whitman County to see if they could repeat the project locally.
“We spent three days on the ground over there learning more about their program, system, leasing, looking at the infrastructure,” Holmberg said. “One thing we learned is they’re adding jobs to Pullman because they have state-of-the-art broadband there now.”
Since 2000, the Port of Whitman County has built more than 200 miles of dark fiber in its region.
To repeat the effort in Ridgefield, the port needed to change the law to allow larger populations. Clark County has 562 residents per square mile, compared with the 100 listed in the original law.
The port first worked with legislators to propose changes in 2017, but that year’s bill ended up in carry-over status. So, the group re-introduced the bill in the 2018 legislative session, Holmberg said.
“This year we went back again, simplified the bill a little and asked them to remove the rural designation,” he said.
After passing the House and Senate, the bill was sent to Inslee’s desk on March 8. It had not yet been signed at the time of this report, but officials said the governor was expected to sign.
Once signed, the port will start construction on the broadband loop as soon as possible. Holmberg said if things go as planned, work could start in early July.
The project is slated to take six years, with funding coming from the port’s prior property sales and from port taxes, he added.
The effort won’t make the port a direct provider of broadband services, and the new legislation continues to allow ports to only provide wholesale services. That means the port will contract the dark fiber out to other companies to sell to the business community and private residents.
“They’ll basically lease strands of fiber,” Holmberg said. “We’re building dark fiber. Just the cable, some huts with racks, backup generators. There won’t be any electronics from the port, though. Private sector companies will do that.”
The Port of Whitman County currently has about 14 companies selling broadband services through its network. Holmberg said he expects a similar diversity of providers once the Ridgefield loop is finished.
“CenturyLink has been very supportive of our work over the last few years,” Holmberg said. “Wave Broadband as well. There are also folks from the Southwest Washington-Oregon region of Comcast, and several others.”
Revenues generated from the fiber loop will also be reinvested into the system, he said.
“There’s a huge demand for business and companies looking to relocate or start up here in Ridgefield, and there are also consumers interested in those services,” Holmberg said.
The project should also bode especially well for two sectors that CREDC is actively recruiting: Software and high-value manufacturing. Both industries need reliable, high-speed broadband and both are also attracted to the quality of life in Ridgefield, Bomar said.
“Clark County as a whole has been receiving a lot of attention nationally and internationally from companies and investors,” Bomar said. “The broadband effort is just one example of how our local governments are being proactive in preparing for the kind of investments that will bring higher wage jobs and an aggressive, yet sustainable approach to economic development.”