The Port of Ridgefield plans to lay the groundwork that could help transform empty land north of Vancouver into a kind of mini Silicon Valley. But without intervention from the Washington Legislature, those plans could be significantly compromised.
“We still have legislative challenges we’re working through,” said Nelson Holmberg, the port’s vice president of innovation.
The port wants to build a 42-mile “dark fiber” loop in its district. But as it currently stands, state law limits development of broadband infrastructure to public ports in counties with fewer than 100 residents per square mile.
“That definition is a force fit in the modern world,” said James Thompson, deputy director of the Washington Public Ports Association. “It doesn’t work because there are rural areas in every county in the state, and those are areas that are underserved by broadband.”
The port and its allies unsuccessfully sought to have the law changed last year. They’re trying again in the upcoming short legislative session, but with a narrower focus.
Holmberg said the port once paid for an analysis that confirmed what they had found anecdotally: Businesses considering a move to the Discovery Corridor need fast, reliable internet service, something it currently doesn’t have.
Rather than counting on profit-driven telecommunications companies to lay fiber in a region where there are few, if any, customers in place, the Port of Ridgefield wants to lay the dark fiber loop and lease it to internet service providers, which would “light” the fiber optic cables by connecting them to the internet. Those companies, in turn, would build off that backbone and provide service to businesses or residents in the area.
“Really, we’re trying to make a market for private sector companies,” Holmberg said. “(For example), if we build the pipe, it’s their water going through, their pump and faucets on the ends.”
Fiber-optic networks use pulses of light to move information. The technology is significantly faster than DSL or cable, but its availability is limited to select major metropolitan areas around the U.S.
The service could be especially useful to health care and biological science companies the port is trying to attract, and even to Clark College, which plans on building a facility in Ridgefield in a few years.
“This is an example of building infrastructure for business development and (improving) the quality of life in our communities,” Thompson said.
Holmberg and others who embrace the notion of public ports building broadband infrastructure point to the Port of Whitman County as an example of how it can be done successfully.
That county is larger than the state of Rhode Island and has about 20,000 residents. That port started working on a fiber network in the mid 90s. Today it has a 200-mile dark fiber network that is used by 14 internet service providers.
“The growth on this enterprise is double digits, and there’s still a lot to do,” said Joe Poire, the port’s executive director.
In the year 2000, the state Legislature gave rural ports and public utility districts authority to build high-bandwidth internet infrastructure.
Last year, two bills were introduced that would have lifted the geographic restriction and allowed ports to directly connect to other government bodies and build broadband infrastructure outside port districts. The Senate version passed on a 48-1 vote, but the House version failed to make it out of committee.
Both bills were opposed by telecommunications companies and their trade organizations.
The house bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, said last year’s Senate and House bills are still alive for the upcoming legislative session.
Next session, which starts Jan. 7, Dye said she will put forth yet another bill, but this one will focus exclusively on allowing ports of any size to lay broadband infrastructure.
“The bill I proposed simply removes the word rural so all ports can have the same authority that only rural ports and PUDs have,” she said.
For Dye, the issue is about getting high-speed internet into rural and underserved communities — places where private companies might not see a strong financial incentive to lay the infrastructure themselves, but might be willing to operate it.
“The parallel with rural electrification is very eerily similar. It’s almost as if you need a catalyst to start the construction,” she said.
Holmberg said the port has worked with La Center’s public works department to lay conduit while doing other infrastructure work. The port plans on doing the same with other public entities in the future. So far, the port has installed about 2 miles of conduit.
Homberg said the port won’t give up if the law doesn’t change in its favor this year. But even in the worst case scenario, the conduit gives them options.
“Either we’ll blow in fiber later or we’ll lease the space to another company,” he said. “If worse comes to worse, we’ll sell it to somebody.”