Background

The Port of Columbia has been working with community partners, including the City of Dayton and Columbia County, since 2019 to address inadequate and unreliable internet service in our community. Even before the pandemic, we heard concerns from many businesses and community members about how limiting our current internet service was. COVID-19 only exacerbated the issues our community was having. It became clear that in order for our community to remain attractive to residents and businesses, to meet current health care needs, and to provide adequate opportunities for education, improvements needed to be made.

In February 2020, the Port completed a feasibility study for a dark fiber network in the City of Dayton and some adjacent, more dense areas. The study showed that it is financially feasible to operate a fiber optic network under the public/private partnership model in our community.

In July of 2021, the Port of Columbia was awarded a $2 million grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) to construction a fiber network in our community. Matching funds of $500,000 are required in order to accept the award. Funds have been received from the Sherwood Trust ($20,000), Warren Community Fund ($15,000) and the Dayton Columbia County Fund ($13,500) and the 2021 Port budget allocated $20,000. Columbia County and the City of Dayton will be asked to provide the remainder of the matching funds required.

If funds are secured, the network could be completed as soon as December 2022. Click here to see a map of the project area. Please note that the area served may change based on construction costs. We will build as far out as we can afford.

What is Broadband?

Broadband is a newer, faster technology that delivers high speed Internet access to people. To visualize how broadband works, think of it like being plugged in directly to the nearest cellphone tower. Instead of having just one tower somewhere in the area, your Internet connection arrives to your house via fiber optic cables directly without having to be broadcast over the air.

What’s a Dark Fiber Network?

Dark fiber is infrastructure – fiber optic cable that has not been “lit.” In the case of this project, and most of the other city- or port-owned projects around the state, the Port would not be “lighting the fiber,” which means providing internet service. The Port will instead lease strands of fiber to the private sector internet service providers (ISPs), and they are the ones that will provide service to customers. Basically, we build and maintain the road, and the ISPs drive on it to deliver service.

How does the Public/Private Partnership work?

The Port of Columbia will string fiber optic cable throughout the project area, enabling every business and household access to what’s called fiber-to-the-premises internet service. Both the State of Washington and the federal government have made future-proof, reliable, affordable high-speed internet service a priority for the citizens of our country. There is nothing on the market at this time that is as reliable or as future proof as direct fiber-to-the-premises service, so our state and federal funding partners will only fund projects that meet these requirements. Please note that no one HAS to use this service. They can continue to use whatever current internet service they have. But if this project is built, every household and business will have the opportunity to hook up. We will charge the ISPs a lease rate for them to use strands of our fiber to deliver service to their customers.

The ISP will have equipment at each end of the fiber network – at the colocation center in the Rock Hill Industrial Park, the “brains” of the system, and in each customer’s home. The customer will pay the ISP a monthly rate, and the ISP will pay the Port $20 of that fee for use of our system.

If the customer has a service issue, they call the ISP. If the problem is in the ISPs equipment at either end of the system, the ISP fixes it. If the problem is in the fiber optic lines, the Port fixes it, using the lease revenue to cover the cost of maintenance.

The Port of Whitman has been using this model for several years, and currently is working to extend fiber-to-the-premises broadband service using this same model to 5, small rural communities – Tekoa, Oakesdale, Rosalia, Garfield, and Palouse.  The Port of Garfield is completing a project right now that covers the entire City of Pomeroy. They already have residents receiving speeds of up to 1 Gigabyte for $70 per month! The Port of Walla Walla is also seeking funding to improve service to Touchet, Waitsburg, and Prescott in the same way.

Why is the Port getting involved? Why not just let the private sector do this?

We’ve been waiting for 20 years for the private sector to do this. It is not feasible for the private sector to make an investment of this size in a community with a small customer base, service the debt, and expect a reasonable return on investment. That’s why no one has done it. One of the reasons Ports exist is to provide infrastructure that helps the private sector succeed. That is exactly what this project will do while at the same giving every resident and business in the city and its outskirts the opportunity to have reliable, affordable high-speed internet.

Is the Port trying to put our local companies out of business?

Of course not. With the exception of one, all of the existing ISPs have expressed support of this project. As part of our CERB application, we were required to notify each of the existing ISPs of our intention to apply, show them a map of the project area, and ask for feedback. Four of the five responded, and three private companies signed contingency agreements with the Port, stating their intent to lease fiber from the Port and provide service of up to 1 GB in speed to the community. The grant application only required one, and we got three, which shows the great potential this project has. PocketiNet, Columbia iConnect, and Emerge by Inland Cellular all intend to continue providing service here using the new fiber network.

What are the benefits of this network?

  • CERB considers any service less than 100 mb down/20 mb up to be UNSERVED, and 300/70 to be underserved. In a speed test at my office today, my service was 10/1. That is completely substandard for today’s world. This project would allow customers to choose speeds of up to 1 GB symmetrical.
  • 1,139 households would have access to high-speed, reliable internet
  • 140 businesses would have access to high-speed, reliable internet
  • Young families will be more likely to stay or move here because they can stream TV and movies, play video games, and work from home
  • People of all ages, including our children, would have better access to online education.
  • Businesses can be much more productive and can take advantage of online growth opportunities. Tech-related businesses might consider locating here.
  • Telework options would increase.
  • Telemedical services would be improved.
  • The elderly and those with chronic health conditions could be monitored electronically, allowing them to stay in their homes longer.