Port commissioners push for dark fiber

Marshall: Lack of reliable high-speed internet in Clark County ‘a huge issue’

Port of Camas-Washougal commissioner John Spencer is concerned about the lack of reliable high-speed internet access for many Clark County residents. He’s equally concerned that he doesn’t see anybody doing anything about it.

“I have a general dread, to be dramatic, that I’m not seeing activity,” Spencer said during the Port’s Sept. 15 virtual meeting. “I keep hearing people talking about it, but I don’t see anybody stepping up to the plate, which worries me. That’s why I bring this up. I start thinking, ‘If nobody else does this, should we? But do we really have the capacity? Or is there some way we can urge (Clark County Public Utilities) to do more?'”

The commissioners directed Port executive officer David Ripp to reach out to Clark Public Utilities leaders to talk about the issue, which is becoming more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced more people to work from home.

Dark fiber is fiber-optic infrastructure that is not yet “lit” or put into use by a service provider. A dark fiber lease requires the customer rather than the service provider to maintain and operate the equipment required to “light” the fiber and use it for internet access and communications.

In March 2018, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed Substitute House Bill 2664 into law, a piece of legislation that gives Washington state port authorities the opportunity to develop open-access broadband infrastructure for lease to all interested service providers.

“Legislatively, the Port has the ability to manage, develop, construct, lay, however you want to say it, dark fiber,” Ripp said during the Sept. 15 meeting. “We don’t have the legislative authority to run it, but we have the ability to lay it in the ground or run it along power lines or whatever, and the goal would be from that investment to lease that line to Comcast, Ziply or whoever would run it. (But) I would like to see Clark Public Utilities take a lead on that if it’s going to happen.”

“I would love to see CPU or anybody other than us take the lead on it. My worry is that nobody seems willing to, and if nobody else is doing it, I start thinking, ‘Well, somebody has to do it,'” Spencer added. “We do not have dark fiber or high-speed internet in our strategic plan as a focus of ours. That said, it very much is an economic development tool and therefore right smack-dab in our wheelhouse. As far as a key issue for our community, it can’t get much bigger than this one.”

Commissioner Cassi Marshall agreed, saying that a lack of reliable high-speed internet service is “a huge issue.”

“I couldn’t agree more that it’s crucial to economic development in our region, especially with everybody working from home and the challenges that come from that for people who don’t have high-speed internet,” she said. “It’s an equity issue and hugely important all the way around. I honestly haven’t thought that much about what our role is in it. I do think we should be supportive of it regionally in whatever way we can with whatever entity is tackling it, but I would need to learn a lot more before knowing what our part is in it.”

Commissioner Larry Keister also said that he’d like more information before deciding how the Port should proceed in the matter.

“We want to support the community for economic developments and future benefits, but (we would have to determine) the need from the Port’s perspective, for our tenants, and future tenants, and support whoever is involved or leads this (effort),” he said. “I think this is Clark County Public Utility’s responsibility. We need to be supportive. (But) it’s expensive and we have a lot on our plate right now.”

City of Camas communications director Bryan Rachal told Port leaders that “while we understand the importance of broadband, it’s not necessarily our main priority for what we’re working on right now in the sense we have elections coming up, new administrator, new mayor and a bunch of other things on the docket that we’re focused on.”

Washougal resident and business owner Martha Martin voiced her strong support of improved internet service, saying the topic “has been on everyone’s minds for a long time.”

“I know there’s some concern about rural areas being underserved, and they are underserved,” she said. “I work in a rural area; I’m coming to you via Ziply DSL right now, and it goes down regularly. It’s not reliable. Just because there’s not that many people doesn’t mean that the need isn’t as important. We have people out here that use Zoom for their medical appointments. I’m serving clients all online at this point; there are no people in my office yet. Mental health, medical health, school — it’s important. I know how important this is for people not just in the city, not just in the Port buildings, but all around your district, which is huge.”