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Columbia County Port commissioners discuss Touchet Valley Trail, broadband

 

March 19, 2020



DAYTON—On Wednesday of last week, the Port of Columbia Commissioners addressed a request from a small group of community members who came before them in February, seeking an advisory vote of the people to determine whether, or not, the proposed Touchet Valley Trail will be allowed.

Commission Chairman Earle Marvin read a prepared statement to a handful of people who returned on Wednesday, to hear their decision.

Marvin said he would prefer to have Anderson/Perry & Associates complete the planning study for the trail.

“At that point the Port should have enough answers to the many questions that have been raised concerning the trail that would allow it to hold a public hearing on whether or not to continue further development of the trail,” he said.

The commissioners had asked the Port’s Executive Director, Jennie Dickinson, to find out whether the Port commissioners could place an advisory vote on the ballot.

Dickinson said she was told by the state of Washington’s Secretary of State to contact the county auditor with that question.

County Auditor Anne Higgins told her neither she, nor the County’s Prosecuting Attorney, have been able to find whether the Port has the authority to run an advisory vote, said Dickinson.

Dickinson said she has also reached out the Port’s attorney who has also been unable to find whether the Port has the authority to run an advisory vote, and she has contacted the Municipal Research Services Center, as well.

Dickinson said it is important the Port only act within its own authority.

“Unless they can come up with a statement somewhere in the law, or in the state of Washington that says we can, we can’t. We can’t even try,” she said. “We’re still waiting to see if anybody has any answers.”

The consensus among the commissioners is to wait for the completion of the study to determine next steps.

Dickinson said Anderson/Perry & Associates are “very willing” to meet with landowners about their concerns.

She said the Touchet Valley Trail Committee is reviewing the design concept plan and the commissioners will get to see it in April, after which it will be made public on the Port’s website.

Broadband study

In March of 2018, legislation was adopted by the state allowing ports in Washington State the authority to build broadband infrastructure in their jurisdictions.

A broadband survey conducted by the Port of Columbia in October of 2018, indicated the majority of the community were either unhappy with their current service, or wanted improvements to their existing internet options.

The Port applied for a grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board, to help the Port determine if a Port-built dark fiber optic network is right for the community. (Dark fiber refers to unused fiber-optic cable. Often times companies lay more lines than what’s needed in order to curb costs of having to do it again and again. The dark strands can be leased to individuals or other companies who want to establish optical connections among their own locations.)

The Port also reached out to several internet service providers including Columbia iConnect, Inland Cellular, Inc, and PocketiNet Communications, Inc. to gauge their interest in providing Port officials with a planning study.

PocketiNet Communications, Inc. was selected from among the three, and on Wednesday of last week Pocket iNet CEO Todd Brandenburg, Outside Plant Director Wrandoll Brenes-Morua, and CFO Giselle Hepker presented the Port officials with their findings.

Brandenburg defined the term ‘dark’ fiber saying it is a glass like fiber, about the size of a human hair that can transmit data, with beams of laser light. Internet capacity for the whole city of Dayton, Walla Walla, and Waitsburg can fit on one “human hair” of fiber”.

The advantage is the laser, the pulsing, and the data can be infinitely upgraded into the future, he said.

“It is limitless as far as the capacity to the customer,” he said. “Fiberoptic technology has been tried and true since the 1970s.”

All proposed construction is on existing utility poles and service will be available to 100 percent of all residences and businesses in the community, whether they choose to connect, or not.

“That would be just stringing from pole to pole on existing cable already there and dropping into the homes and businesses,” he explained.

Brandenburg said the need for high speed internet is great, especially in rural communities, where attracting businesses and providing opportunities to work or learn from home is important. It could also serve to keep youth from leaving rural communities for jobs elsewhere.

“There is a marketing advantage that allows you to put your name on the map,” he said.

Brandenburg said the state of Washington has a broadband director, and there is legislation regarding goals for broadband. The goal for 2028 is that all residents and businesses should have access to 150 Mbps (Megabits symmetrical, up and down).

“If the Port took this on, they would not be the service provider, but they would be the wholesale provider to other retail service providers, in an open access environment, that could lease the dark fiber from the Port,” he said.

Brandenburg said Garfield County is in the process of building a fiberoptic network to serve about 700 residences and businesses at a cost of around $1 million. It will cost customers about $69 per month for 100 MB of service, and more for a higher level of service, he said.

Brandenburg said whoever is providing the communities with broadband service gets to set the price, and can actually utilize the fiberoptic ability to enhance their own business while providing better service to the communities.

CFO Giselle Hepker said the Port of Columbia would make the initial investment, which would be a public/private partnership with multiple service providers.

She said, “Once the network is built, the Internet Service Providers will use the Port’s network to connect to their customers. The Internet Service Providers will charge their customers, monthly, and the Port will charge the ISPs for each premise connected to the internet.”

“Suddenly every premise in Dayton is available to them to sell their service to,” Hepker said.

She said ISPs are able to provide unlimited fast speed without having to upgrade their current infrastructure, but there will be an investment upfront for placing their equipment on the colocators to light the fiber.

The estimate for building the broadband network is 2 million dollars. To build underground would cost five times that amount.

Hepker said financing is best through the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB), which offers low interest loans, with interest rates ranging from 1 to 3 percent, or through grant funding opportunities requiring from zero up to 50 percent matches. CERB also offers longer loan terms than private lenders do, she said.

The fiber lease back fees are the Port’s revenue. This is the amount the Port charges ISPs for connections. The colocation space rental, where the ISPs put their equipment to light the fiber, is also revenue.

Expenses would be the utility pole attachments which would be rented from Pacific Power and Light Co. and loan repayments, as well as administrative costs for billing, and for maintaining the network, Hepker said

Hepker left Port officials with food for thought regarding finances, which has highlighted a need for further investigation.

Dickenson called the presentation a “fabulous first start.”

 

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