KALAMA — Woodland and Kalama projects are in the works to bring high-speed internet to rural and remote homes that have never been connected before.
Broadband expansion projects were the focus of a roundtable discussion Tuesday at the Port of Kalama with 3rd Congressional District Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, and Xochitl Torres Small, undersecretary for Rural Development at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Torres Small oversees the USDA’s ReConnect loan and grant program to provide broadband to rural areas.
Kalama Telephone Company received an $8.6 million ReConnect grant last year to expand fiber internet to thousands of people living east of Kalama. Rick Vitzhum, chief financial officer for Kalama Telephone, said the company plans to work with a contractor to begin laying those lines to roughly 1,600 homes this summer.
“I think that the kids along Kalama River Road need access as much as the kids living in town,” Vitzhum said.
Kalama Telephone has said it would help make the internet service affordable to residents through the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity program.
Torres Small said she was impressed with the amount of cooperation between the different local governments and private entities. One of Washington’s largest cooperatives on that front is Petrichor Broadband, a publicly owned corporation working to expand broadband access in rural areas. The Port of Kalama was one of the six ports who founded Petrichor to partner with small communities.
“When we get out to the really remote areas, with homes every mile or so, or you get into the back areas where there isn’t a wireless option, I don’t see a clear path for those to get funded,” Petrichor leader Kara Riebold said.
The Port of Woodland is working with Petrichor on its new broadband expansion into Ariel, Cougar and the other remote towns within the port district. The port has received a total of $2.5 million in two state awards to launch the project, which will allow internet access to about 750 homes by the end of 2024.
The first phase of the project, which lays a fiber internet line along Lewis River Road for immediate business access, should wrap up by the end of April.
Only a quarter of Cowlitz County residents had access to high-speed internet in 2020, according to a report from the state Broadband Office. A majority of residents had some level of broadband access but with download speeds of less than 10 megabits — 15 fewer megabits than what the FCC considers high-speed. Many homes outside the Interstate 5 corridor completely lack phones or rely on dial-up internet, including one of the Port of Woodland commissioners.
The speed of high-speed internet is measured by how long it takes to download and upload files. The Washington State Broadband Office’s stated goal is to build out infrastructure to provide download speed of 25 megabits per second by the end of 2024.
Kalama Telephone and other small telecom companies, such as Wahkiakum West, also said at the roundtable that recent changes to the ReConnect grants may go too far in preferring public agencies. Several places cited the cost of going through federal environmental reviews, which could be several times more expensive than Washington’s review process.