Residents hoping for better internet access likely won’t get it from Thurston County’s Public Utility District.
The PUD, which primarily provides water planning and utility services, has decided against starting its own broadband internet business after spending the past year considering the endeavor.
In an April 12 report, PUD General Manager John Weidenfeller concluded the broadband landscape in Thurston County would soon be adequate and a PUD enterprise likely wouldn’t be financially sustainable.
Ruth Clemens, the PUD Administrative Services Manager, presented the report to the Board of County Commissioners during an informational meeting on Thursday. The report includes the results of a feasibility assessment and countywide survey of residents.
But just 1,488 people responded to the survey, including those at 1,369 single-family homes, 11 commercial locations and 112 multi-family residences. For perspective, the U.S. Census estimates Thurston County had 112,323 households between 2016 and 2020.
Since 2000, Washington state PUDs have been able to build telecommunication infrastructure and lease it out to internet providers that connect the last mile to residents, according to the Washington Public Utility District Association website.
At least half of the 28 public utility districts in Washington state were providing local access to wholesale broadband telecommunication services as of 2019, according to the website.
Clemens said the Thurston County PUD commission directed staff in February 2021 to coordinate with school districts to understand any inequities in internet access.
After that step, she said they communicated with libraries, fire districts, local tribes, parks, medical services, small businesses and the public.
“We really worked to reach out to them, to make sure that we got word out about the survey, to get as many people as we could to take it,” Clemens said. “So, we tried our best to cast a wide net throughout the county.”
The PUD also contracted Northwest Open Access Network, a public-benefit telecommunications organization, to help assess the situation and plan a potential business strategy, Clemens said.
The approach the PUD considered depended on federal subsidies for broadband infrastructure development and at least 30% of available customers signing on or switching from their current provider.
“Even after that 30% take rate, we would still lose over a million dollars over a 12-year period,” Clemens said. “For the first year, we determine that we would have to secure over $4 million in grant funding and in the second year, another $4 million.”
The PUD could ask voters to approve a tax to fund a project like this. However, Weidenfeller told the Board of County Commissioners the PUD didn’t go that far.
“We could have utilized that to make it happen,” he said. “We never really discussed that in any length but that certainly could have been an option.”
The report ultimately concluded cost is the primary barrier to access in urban communities where infrastructure is already available. In rural areas, the report says private companies are already serving highly populated areas or working to fill in gaps.
Clemens said it became apparent local internet service providers are well-established, well-funded and poised to gain market share.
“They’ve gained traction and they will continue to dominate this county and also other counties as well,” Clemens said.
Weidenfeller said the PUD commission wanted to evaluate the feasibility of such a project and make sure the public’s needs were being met.
He pointed to the Nisqually Tribe as one such entity that’s helping connect rural communities.
“We were really investigating what it would take to do,” he said. “We were prepared to move forward with it if we needed to and work with different jurisdictions,” he said. “The Nisqually Tribe, they’re an answer to a lot of the issues of bringing internet into 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 providers, The Olympian previously reported.
The PUD’s survey results show 113 of the 1,488 respondents indicated they had no internet access. Of that total, 66.4% said it was not available at their location, 28.3% blamed cost and 5.3% said they didn’t need it or didn’t want it.
Out of 1,403 respondents, 74.9% were unsatisfied with price while 72% were satisfied with reliability. The issue of speed divided these respondents more evenly with 54.9% being satisfied and 45.1% being unsatisfied.
At 96.7%, nearly all 1,488 respondents agreed that broadband is a utility like water and power. Notably, 73.4% of 1,424 respondents indicated someone in their household worked from home.
The results show 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 slower than 25 megabits per second, the FCC standard for “high-speed.” About 75% of respondents had download speeds less than 150 mbps and about 25% had speeds over 150 mbps.
For upload speeds, 21.8% of the 1,038 respondents had speeds below 3 mbps and 99.6% had speeds below 150 mbps. Just 0.3% had speeds above 150 mbps.