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July 2, 2022

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Ports of Ridgefield, Woodland get state grants to explore internet service

La Center area focus of study

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WOODLAND — Many residents who live on the stretch of road between Woodland and Ridgefield use satellite dishes for internet access, which sometimes malfunction because of the terrain.

A state-funded study could provide wider internet coverage to those residents.

The state’s economic revitalization group gave the Port of Ridgefield $50,000 for an internet feasibility study. The Woodland port partnered with Ridgefield because the area of interest connects the two ports.

Ridgefield is financially responsible to match the grant funds, but the two ports will split the cost 50-50.

About 25,000 people live along Interstate 5 between Woodland and Ridgefield, near La Center, and internet access can be hard to come by, said Jennifer Wray-Keene, Port of Woodland executive director.

State laws identified a need for wider access to broadband internet, but the challenge is installing it.

In 2019 the Legislature passed the statewide Broadband Act, which defined internet access as a “critical” part of living in Washington. The law laid out a plan to provide an option for publicly funded internet to all residents and businesses by 2028.

The Washington State Community Economic Revitalization Board approved funding not just for Ridgefield and Woodland; in total, the board gave $200,000 spread across Clark, Spokane and Whitman counties.

To get the grant, jurisdictions have to confirm they have other funding options they can use, and they also have to get several permits.

“CERB is dedicated to helping communities across the state develop the infrastructure to attract, retain and grow businesses and jobs, for many this starts with planning. These investments will have a positive economic impact at a time when it is needed the most,” CERB Chair Randy Hayden said in a news release.

The local Ridgefield-Woodland grant, though still in its early stages, will fund the chance for the two ports to see whether they can provide internet for residents near La Center.

“Most of this study is not within this district, that’s why the Port of Ridgefield and the Port of Woodland have decided to partner on this study, because neither of us have information,” Wray-Keene said.

In the La Center area, people have between two to four options when it comes to high-speed providers, according to a fixed broadband deployment map from the FCC.

About 40 percent of Cowlitz County residents have three or more providers to choose from, as compared to 90 percent statewide. The county has better coverage than its neighboring counties like Columbia and Skamania, but rural high-speed networks in general tend to “earn less and cost more than equivalent networks in urban areas,” according to Washington’s 2019 data report on broadband internet.

The Port of Woodland in 2020 got a $375,000 loan and a $375,000 grant to install dark fiber on poles between Ariel and Cougar along state Highway 503. CERB in a 2020 legislative report said areas without providers and consistent affordable internet could see economic benefits by providing broadband access.

The Port of Ridgefield also got a loan and grant in 2019 to connect more than 6,000 people to internet by building buried fiber along the Discovery Corridor, specifically for the city of Ridgefield.

Other recipients of this year’s internet study grant include $50,000 for the Port of Camas-Washougal, $50,000 to Spokane County and $50,000 to the Port of Whitman County. Each district will need to use local resources to match at least $12,500 of the funds.

Wray-Keene said the study is just that — a search into the logistics of providing internet in this area.

“We might find out that it’s beyond our capabilities,” she said. “We might find out it’s better for the private (sector). … There’s a lot of pieces within this informational search we’re going to do.”

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