Nelson Holmberg, vice president of innovation for the Port of Ridgefield has a vision.
“We want to light up the whole Discovery Corridor with data capacity. This will attract advanced manufacturing, software companies, healthcare companies – they’ll all want to come to Ridgefield,” said Holmberg.
To achieve this vision, the port is in the initial phases of a new “dark fiber” project – the port would build fiber optic infrastructure, then lease that infrastructure to private companies for data transmission, cable TV and Internet access. In concept, it’s very similar to building a shell of a building then leasing that structure to a tenant.
Holmberg said there is a misconception that when a municipality constructs a fiber network it is competing with private enterprise. But, he said, in reality such projects help fiber providers.
“When they are at capacity, building new fiber infrastructure is costly; if they can lease from us they avoid a big capital outlay.”
The synergy of this type of project is clearly visible in Whitman County, where Holmberg first learned about the opportunity at an educational meeting last May. The Port of Whitman County began building a fiber infrastructure 13 years ago, and is seeing a 2:1 return on investment with 17 private companies leasing fiber to light up a big chunk of eastern Washington.
Columbia River Economic Development Council president, Mike Bomar, said that the proposed project would meet a critical need for the region.
“Accessible and reliable high-speed Internet infrastructure and connectivity is a critical component of successful economic development activity in our region,” said Bomar. “Our region’s ability to add fiber connectivity to our list of business amenities will provide a direct competitive advantage to our existing companies and in our ongoing work to attract and recruit new enterprise into the area across a diverse array of industries.”
“In seeking new ways to help our community and also provide a revenue stream for our port, this appears to be a solid investment with a track record of good financial returns,” said Port of Ridgefield Commissioner Scott Hughes.
This January, the port commissioners gave Holmberg the green light to perform initial mapping and construction drawings, which should be complete by April. If the commissioners then approve the project, construction could begin this spring or summer, with the first phase being to loop the port district with fiber. Eventually, Holmberg hopes the project will span from La Center south to Washington State University Vancouver, and from 50th Ave. west to the Columbia River.
The port has budgeted $500,000 from port funds for this year’s portion of the project, and expects to invest about $2 million over the next two years. Holmberg said they are identifying grant opportunities through the Washington State Department of Commerce’s Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) and other government agencies, as well as pursuing partnerships with private companies.
The plan is to use existing infrastructure as much as possible. Holmberg said the port has talked with Clark Public Utilities and the Clark Regional Wastewater District about putting conduit in when new trenches are dug, and pulling fiber through existing communication conduit. The fiber can also go on utility poles, but the goal is to put as much underground as possible.
Ridgefield is the first Southwest Washington port to pursue such a project, and Holmberg is excited about the possibilities. Bomar, too, sees great potential.
“Cupertino, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, for example, all provide fiber optic Internet connectivity and have asserted themselves as leaders in the technology community,” said Bomar. “Fiber connectivity fills a need for a majority of our knowledge economy businesses, and assists in the attraction of technology companies and talent.”