In 2019, the Port of Ridgefield began planning for a 42-mile “dark fiber” loop in its district. A lot has changed since then.
“The port’s plans evolved as everything else evolved,” said Randy Mueller, Port of Ridgefield CEO.
Dark fiber is fiber-optic infrastructure for broadband internet service that is not yet in use. Because fiber-optic networks use pulses of light to move information, they are significantly faster than DSL or cable.
Mueller said access to high-speed internet has become even more important to residents and businesses since the COVID-19 pandemic, when more people started working and shopping from home.
“A lot has happened. COVID happened, and I think everyone found out how important broadband was,” Mueller said. “We discovered all those meetings could be done with a Zoom call.”
According to the Pew Research Center, which began tracking internet usage in early 2000, 93 percent of American adults were online by 2020.
As the county has grown, so has access to broadband internet — at least in some areas. Residents and businesses can now choose from Comcast, CenturyLink and others. Despite the improved access, Mueller said outlying areas like Amboy, Yale and Cougar still have few, if any, providers.
“We want to meet those unmet needs — the folks that aren’t being taken care of,” Mueller said.
That’s where the port’s dark fiber network can help. As private companies, internet providers often won’t install needed infrastructure in rural areas because there’s not enough profit to pay for the network costs. Using a combination of loans and grants, the port installs the network, then leases it to retail internet providers.
“If it was water infrastructure, the port is just building the pipe and other people are putting the water in it,” Mueller explained. “The port is putting fiber between this point and that point, and we’re leasing the infrastructure to a private provider.”
Rather than one single fiber-optic line, Mueller said the port has numerous pieces of line throughout the region. Whenever a new road or building project is underway with an open trench or conduit being installed, he said the port partners with the builder or agency to take advantage of the open ground, making installation far less expensive.
One outcome of the dark fiber project was the launch of Petrichor Broadband, a publicly owned corporation formed by six public ports: Ridgefield, Kalama, Skagit County, Bellingham, Pasco and Whitman County. Petrichor works with other ports, tribes, counties, cities, public utility districts, industrial development zones as well as the Washington State Broadband Office to expand broadband access to underserved communities. Retail providers like Comcast then lease the company’s infrastructure to provide internet service to residents and businesses.
Mueller said the company was formed, in part, because “at the state level, there was a need for advocacy for publicly operated broadband.”
Even before the port could get its dark fiber project off the ground, it had a major hurdle to overcome. State law at the time limited development of broadband infrastructure to public ports in counties with fewer than 100 residents per square mile. After working with state legislators, other ports and service providers, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill into law that gave all state port authorities the opportunity to develop open-access broadband infrastructure for lease.
Since then, the Legislature adopted several bills to increase access to broadband, allocated $260 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds for infrastructure grants and authorized a 0.05 percent local sales and use tax for rural county public facilities.
A hold-up at the federal level in late 2021 on an infrastructure bill and allocation obstacles at the state level made broadband development a challenge for ports. According to the Port of Ridgefield, legacy carriers don’t want to see broadband networks in the hands of the public.
But with areas like Ridgefield growing rapidly, Mueller said there is still much the port can and is doing.
In June, a project was started to connect WSU Vancouver to its fiber optic line.
“That starts at Interstate 5 and 179th Street … then we go down 50th Avenue and connect to the east side of campus,” said Ethan Perry, director of operations at the port. “We already have conduit on the ground into campus because we partnered with Clark Regional Wastewater when they were putting new infrastructure in.”
Perry said installing the fiber-optic line this way can reduce costs from $30 per linear foot to $8 to $10 per linear foot.
The port is considering extending its existing fiber optic line from La Center to Yale. In June, the port announced it had received a $50,000 grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board to conduct a feasibility study on extending the line from La Center east through Fargher Lake, Amboy, Chelatchie and across the Lewis River to Yale along state Highway 503. The extension would be done through a partnership between the Port of Woodland and Port of Ridgefield.
Mueller said after the Port of Woodland received a grant to install fiber optic line toward Cougar, the idea came up to connect the two lines to serve more customers in the far north end of the county.
“That’s what the study is. Is that feasible? How many people live along that route? How many people will use it? Would it even pencil out?” Mueller said.
Perry said the study should take about a month to complete.
On the web
For more information about the Port of Ridgefield’s broadband project, go to https://portridgefield.org/projects/broadband.