How one rural community is taking control of its broadband destiny

By Thomas Stredwick
Sr. manager of wholesale fiber for Grant County PUD

Bouncing along the back roads of Grant County you wouldn't know that you are likely cruising past one of the most state-of-the-art superhighways in the country.

As communities throughout the country scramble to extend reliable, robust broadband, Grant County Public Utility District (PUD) is ahead of the curve. Since early 2000, Grant PUD has pioneered what is known as an open access fiber optic network. This means that they build the road (the fiber cable) and make it available to local internet service providers (ISPs) who then provide the vehicle that allows customers to enjoy the ride. Grant PUD's journey has not been without challenge, yet the result that customers enjoy today is one of the most enviable open-access fiber optic networks in the country.

After years of deliberation on how best to serve the remaining customers in outlying areas of Grant County, Grant PUD Commissioners approved a $7 million investment in additional fiber optic expansion in late 2017. In addition to these dollars, they memorialized their commitment to bring the High Speed Fiber Optic Network to every county resident and business in their recently-adopted strategic plan. Seventy-five percent of residents and businesses currently have access to the network, but there are still nearly 25 percent who remain unserved in many of the rural pockets of the county. Commissioners are determined to close that gap and ensure equal access for all. While they have not committed to a specific timeframe for when they would fund future expansion, they decided to allot dollars annually based on the financial condition of the fiber business and the utility as a whole. While it's unlikely that the utility will recover the $182 million capital investment spent thus far on the existing fiber optic network, revenues are on the rise. In 2017 alone, gross revenues grew by 11 percent. That figure is expected to climb an additional 18 percent by the end of 2018 to over $8 million.

What a Connection Means for Small Businesses
A fiber optic internet connection means more than uninterrupted access to the latest Netflix releases. For some, it provides a lifeline to the world beyond the 2,800 square miles of Grant County. One local neighborhood on the outskirts of Moses Lake is preparing to come into the age of high speed broadband access and they are excited.

Michaelle & husband Jeremy, own and operate two online-based businesses from home, Michaelle Boetger Graphic Designs and Wiggle Butt Pet Sitters.

"I have never had it (fiber) so I have high hopes that it'll increase my speeds and make things more efficient for our businesses," said Michaelle Boetger, owner of two businesses Michaelle Boetger Graphic Designs and Wiggle Butt Sitters (a dog sitting business available through rover.com) in Moses Lake, Washington.
Boetger runs these business from home with her husband and they rely on a reliable and robust internet connection.

Once constrained by a slow, unreliable connection, her new fiber optic service allows her businesses to begin providing new offerings at faster speeds. That's the thing about having access to a connection that is only throttled by imagination, it opens up unexplored opportunities for everyone.

"At this point in time, an internet connection is very important. It really is our lifeline to just about everything, whether that be to look up information, making online purchases, figuring out what to make for dinner, planning a trip, or in our case running an at-home business. We really couldn't live without the internet," Boetger said.

Closing the Rural Education Gap
There are over 24 million Americans without access to a quality internet connection, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As more activity is driven online, the gap between the haves and have-nots becomes even more glaring—especially in rural communities like Grant County.

What's worrisome about this, is the amount of online activity that is required for educational attainment. In the United States, 84 percent of public school students graduate on time. In Grant County, the number drops to only 74 percent . While every public school, community college and library in the county has access to a fiber optic connection, the battle to bridge the digital divide looms at the home front. When students return home from school, they are expected to engage in online learning environments or utilize the internet for homework. Without the proper connection, this puts rural students at a competitive disadvantage.

"There were times this year when I wasn't able to work online because the connection was slow. So slow in fact that I would feel like giving up," shared 17-year-old high school Senior, Kaya Zickler. "The last three years I have done part-time high school and part-time online school. Living out in the country and not being able to have high speed internet that works has been really hard."

Kaya Zickler alongside her mother Jennifer, father Patrick, and pooches Maya and Luna.

Kaya's father, Pat, is the owner of Bishop Spray Service, North Central Division, another homegrown, local business that is slated to receive Fiber Optic connectivity this year. "We didn't realize how great fiber was until we moved out into the county and didn't have it anymore. The internet is the biggest complaint in our family right now."

Fortunately, Grant PUD is working to give Kaya's generation a fighting chance. Grant County has always looked beyond the vast sagebrush toward a future of possibilities. Nothing represents this perspective more than the construction of the two dams along the Columbia River. The same pioneering spirit that built the dams, continues on as the utility builds the foundational elements that rural futures are based on. This vision has led to an economic boom in the county over the past decade and attracted investment from major business and industry along the way.

Building to the remaining 25 percent
While not everyone in the county has access to fiber, over 75 percent will have service available by the end of 2018. That number is expected to grow over the next several years as commissioners make good on a promise to expand fiber connectivity to everyone.

The remaining unserved homes and businesses in the county total nearly 12,000. Building fiber to these potential customers requires an investment of approximately $70 million. That number may seem staggering until you consider construction costs that range between $25,000 to $100,000 per mile, depending upon whether it's strung overhead or buried underground. Anyone that has ever moved dirt in Grant County knows that basalt and caliche are Mother Nature's cement and not easily moved. Elements like this cause construction expenses to skyrocket.

While opinions may vary about the implications associated with being overly connected to the online world, one thing is certain, without a fiber optic connection, small businesses and young people in rural communities have the potential to be left behind. Fortunately Grant PUD is paving the way forward and offering solutions to the country's rural connectivity crisis. In the end, the payoff associated with this public service is not measured in profits, rather in possibilities. These connections give rural communities the competitive edge they need by providing access to online employment, agricultural production efficiencies, education, communication, entertainment, and online telehealth services.

About Grant PUD's High Speed Network
With over 30,000 homes and businesses passed and 1,400 miles of fiber cable built, the network was one of the first in the country to be built in the early 2000's.Today, Grant PUD offers speeds up to a Gigabyte on an open access, active-Ethernet fiber optic network. As of June 2018, 52 percent of those with access to service are subscribing and that number climbs each year. When the project is complete, over 3,000 miles of fiber optic cable will be installed passing well over 40,000 homes and businesses.

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