Port of C-W talks broadband

Private-public partnerships could help bring high-speed internet to rural areas

Port of Camas-Washougal officials know securing reliable, high-speed internet service is a problem for many local residents and businesses.

“We hear from the community that we have definite needs, not only for the economic development that we really want to promote,” Port Commissioner Cassi Marshall said recently, adding that the area’s need for reliable internet service has only grown with the number of people who have relied on their home internet for everything from work to health care to remote schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Jan. 19, the Port commissioners heard from Petrichor Broadband representatives about how their eastern Washington-based technology company could identify East Clark County areas that lack high-speed internet access.

Kara Riebold and Joe Poire, Petrichor’s chief operating officer, Kara Riebold, and manager, Joe Poire, presented information about the corporation during the Port’s remote commission meeting on Jan. 19, and said Petrichor Broadband could help officials in the area explore public-private partnerships and bring urban-rate services and pricing to the greater Camas-Washougal region.

This feels like a really exciting opportunity,” Marshall said during the Jan. 19 meeting.

The Port commissioners will continue to talk with Riebold and Poire in an effort to “see how we can assist or work together,” according to the Port’s chief executive officer, David Ripp.

“The Port is interested in working with other local jurisdictions — Clark County, Clark Public Utilities and the cities of Camas and Washougal,” Ripp said. “At this time, the Port does not have any plans to lead a project, but we will look to see how we can connect our local providers with (Petrichor Broadband).”

Petrichor Broadband, a public corporation formed in 2020 by the ports of Kalama, Ridgefield, Bellingham, Pasco, Whitman County and Skagit County, provides broadband consulting and network management services for public agencies, including other ports, tribes, counties, cities, public utility districts and industrial development zones, across Washington state. Petrichor also advocates for legislation that promotes publicly owned, open-access dark fiber infrastructure for the private sector to sell services.

“We work with all different entities that are interested in a dark fiber model or seeking partnerships to bring broadband to their jurisdictions,” Riebold said.

Port Commissioner John Spencer questioned Riebold and Poire about Petrichor’s ability to provide high-speed internet services to the areas of rural Camas and Washougal that currently lack reliable access.

“I fear the complexity of our community,” Spencer said. “Camas’ and Washougal’s central cores are well covered. It’s the 10,000 people in the rural areas that are spread out over 100 miles worth of roadway — I have no clue what the actual number is, but it’s a lot.”

“I wouldn’t doubt that you have 10,000 folks out in that type of region,” Poire responded. “I think you’d be able to put together a very compelling narrative (for a grant application).”

Port Commissioner Larry Keister said that he would like to see a feasibility study and needs assessment done “to see if our portion of the dark fiber from the I-205 corridor to the Camas-Washougal area would be a benefit to the community, including our rural areas.”

Washougal resident Chris Bauman told Port leaders he hopes local officials can find a way to bring high-speed internet to rural areas of East Clark County sooner rather than later.

“My house up on Washougal River Road is in a complete dead zone,” Bauman said, “so I’m taking classes on cellular technology to learn how to build my own 4G LT system to try to get some internet access to my house.”

Cory Schuth, the president and chief executive officer for NocTel Fiber in downtown Washougal, said his company is “actively installing fiber out in the rural Washougal areas” and told Riebold and Poire he would be interested in finding a way to work together.

“The first thing we would do is get together and collaborate,” Poire replied. “Our architecture is open-access and would lead back to your network, so you could utilize that fiber.”

Petrichor’s model has already had success throughout Washington. According to the company’s first year, it helped create 28 private sector partnerships, manage 435 miles of fiber and better serve nearly 62,000 Washingtonians with reliable, high-speed internet.

In 2021, Petrichor Broadband helped the Port of Garfield County receive a $412,500 loan and a $137,500 grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board to build a fiber-to-the-home network in Pomeroy, Washington.

Nearly 700 homes and businesses, once constrained by aging copper systems that exceeded the distance limitations for all except the slowest digital subscriber line (DSL) services, now have access to gig-speed internet. Prior to this effort, speeds in rural Garfield County stalled at 15 megabytes per second, the Petrichor representatives told Port officials. The company could help Camas-Washougal’s rural residents see the same type of successes.

“While you guys live just a small way away from the I-5 corridor and the Vancouver market, there’s quite a disparity between entry-level one-gig services on a special for $49 a month and the services just 20, 30, 40 miles away,” Poire said. “We’d look for ways to bridge those gaps with infrastructure.”

Petrichor Broadband has explored the possibility of installing fiber along the I-205 corridor “from the southern end (of Washington) all the way up to Woodland,” according to Ripp, a project that could someday extend east into Camas and Washougal.

“(The Washington State Department of Transportation) hasn’t traditionally allowed any broadband or utility construction in their restricted corridors running longitudinally along the right-of-way,” Riebold said. “But their recent study encouraged them to find a way to do this because it would greatly improve broadband in our state. … I think the conversation from December was (that) if fiber is built up that right-of-way, the next step would be that it branches off, and we could connect, potentially, to the Camas-Washougal area.”

In November 2021, Petrichor celebrated the Biden administration’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress on Nov. 5, 2021, which included $65 billion for broadband throughout the country. Washington Sen. Patty Murray has said Washington state will likely receive $100 million from the infrastructure bill to expand the state’s broadband internet services “and provide access to the at least 241,000 people in the state who currently lack it.”

On its website, Petrichor states that the company is “excited about this historic investment in broadband and look forward to helping our clients leverage these funds to bridge the digital divide in Washington state.”