Thurston County PUD decides not to go into internet business after year-long study

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Martín Bilbao / The Olympian

Residents hoping for better internet access likely won’t get it from the Thurston County Utility District.

PUD, which primarily provides water planning and utility services, decided against starting its own broadband internet business after spending the last year considering the venture.

In an April 12 report, PUD Executive Director John Weidenfeller concluded that the broadband landscape in Thurston County would soon be adequate and that a PUD venture would likely not be financially viable.

Ruth Clemens, PUD administrative services manager, presented the report to the County Board of Commissioners at a briefing on Thursday.

The report includes the results of a feasibility assessment and a countywide resident survey.

But only 1,488 people responded to the survey, including those from 1,369 single-family homes, 11 commercial locations and 112 multi-family residences. For perspective, the US Census estimates that Thurston County had 112,323 households between 2016 and 2020.

Since 2000, PUDs in Washington state have been able to build telecommunications infrastructure and lease it to internet service providers that connect the last mile to residents, according to the Washington Public Utility District Association website.

At least half of Washington state’s 28 utility districts provided local access to wholesale broadband telecommunications services in 2019, according to the website.

Evaluation

Clemens said the Thurston County PUD commission instructed staff in February 2021 to coordinate with school districts to understand any inequities in internet access.

After this step, she said she contacted libraries, firefighters, local tribes, parks, medical services, small businesses and the public.

“We really worked to reach out to them, to make sure we were informed about the investigation, to get as many people as possible to respond to it,” Clemens said. “So we did our best to cast a wide net all over the county.”

The PUD also engaged Northwest Open Access Network, a public interest telecommunications organization, to help it assess the situation and plan a potential business strategy, Clemens said.

The approach PUD envisioned depended on federal grants for broadband infrastructure development and at least 30% of available customers signing up or switching current providers.

“Even after that 30% turnout, we would still lose over $1 million over a 12-year period,” Clemens said. “For the first year, we determine that we will need to obtain more than $4 million in grants and for the second year, an additional $4 million.”

The PUD could ask voters to approve a tax to fund a project like this. However, Weidenfeller told the County Board of Commissioners that the PUD did not go that far.

“We could have used that to get there,” he said. “We never really discussed it, but it certainly could have been an option.”

The report ultimately concluded that cost is the main barrier to access in urban communities where infrastructure is already available. In rural areas, the report says private companies are already serving densely populated areas or trying to fill the gaps.

Clemens said it has become clear that local internet service providers are well established, well funded and poised to gain market share.

“They’ve gained momentum and they will continue to dominate this county and other counties,” Clemens said.

Weidenfeller said the PUD commission wanted to assess the feasibility of such a project and ensure that the public’s needs were met.

He pointed to the Nisqually Tribe as one such entity that helps connect rural communities.

“We were really investigating what to do,” he said. “We were ready to move forward if we needed to and work with different jurisdictions,” he said. “The Nisqually Tribe, they’re an answer to a lot of the problems with bringing the internet to these rural areas.”

Since 2017, the tribe has been making progress building internet infrastructure with Nisqually Communications, a fiber optic construction service that works with other internet service providers, The Olympian previously reported.

Survey results

PUD survey results show that 113 of 1,488 respondents indicated that they had no internet access. Of that total, 66.4% said it wasn’t available on their site, 28.3% blamed the cost, and 5.3% said they didn’t need it or didn’t want it.

Out of 1,403 respondents, 74.9% were dissatisfied with the price while 72% were satisfied with the reliability. The issue of speed divided these respondents more evenly with 54.9% being satisfied and 45.1% being dissatisfied.

At 96.7%, almost all of the 1,488 respondents agreed that broadband is a utility like water and electricity. Notably, 73.4% of the 1,424 respondents indicated that someone in their household worked from home.

The results show that 1,038 people took a speed test. This option was included to determine if their Internet service met the definition of “high-speed” Internet established by the Federal Communications Commission, Clemens said.

Of that total, 32% had download speed test results below 25 megabits per second, the FCC standard for “high speed.” About 75% of respondents had download speeds below 150 Mbps and about 25% had speeds above 150 Mbps.

For download speeds, 21.8% of the 1,038 respondents had speeds below 3 Mbps and 99.6% had speeds below 150 Mbps. Only 0.3% had speeds above 150 Mbps.

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