Making Connections: Port, Washougal business focus on bringing faster internet to rural areas

Many rural residents find their internet connections are not able to keep up with increasingly remote world

When Krista Cagle moved to a house north of Washougal almost four years ago, she knew she might be compromising high-speed internet for a chance to own property in a rural area. What Cagle didn’t count on was the COVID-19 pandemic, which emphasized the reality of how much she really needed faster internet service.

“I can’t really do Zoom meetings, especially if I have some sort of presentation to give, because my internet will cut out,” said Cagle, the Port of Camas-Washougal’s director of finance. “All of a sudden, this box pops up that says, ‘Your internet connection is unstable.’ Whenever I see that, I know that if I’m the one talking, nobody will hear anything I say. I have a daughter who goes to Cape Horn-Skye (Elementary School), and she was trying to do school on a tablet and using some of the bandwidth at times, too. It’s not ideal. And we don’t have cable television, so we rely on streaming — Hulu, Netflix, all of that, and sometimes they just flat out don’t work.”

The Port of Camas-Washougal is currently seeking solutions to help Cagle and other rural East Clark County residents who struggle with slow internet speeds.

At their March 2 meeting, Port commissioners OK’d sending an application to the Washington State Department of Commerce for a $50,000 grant that would help the Port fund a feasibility and planning study on bringing dark fiber infrastructure — fiber-optic cables installed in the ground that network service providers can use to fulfill future bandwidth needs — in East Clark County.

The state’s Community Economic Revitalization Board Rural Broadband program provides low-interest loan and grant packages to local governments and federally-recognized Indian tribes, financing the cost to build infrastructure that provides high-speed, open-access broadband service to rural underserved communities for the purpose of community economic development, according to its website.

“In looking at the state legislative activity, there (are) a lot of bills and a lot of funding coming down the pike on broadband later in the year, and I think we’re timing our involvement almost perfectly to be able to do something,” Port Commissioner John Spencer said during the Port’s March 2 meeting. “I’m actually very excited about this and think there’s a strong possibility that we will actually be able to help our community here.”

The Port plans to supplement the potential $50,000 Department of Commerce grant with $12,500 of its own funds.

In the resolution it passed March 2, the Port Commission stated that it “believes that increased broadband access and connectivity to our unserved (and) underserved area will significantly strengthen the economy of East Clark County and will expand living wage employment opportunities.”

The Port officials heard from Kara Riebold and Joe Poire, the chief operating officer and manager of 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.

Port of Camas-Washougal Executive Director David Ripp said Port leaders have agreed to continue to talk with Petrichor representatives in an effort to “see how we can assist or work together.”

“Commissioner Spencer and I met with Petrichor to discuss what our next steps could be regarding our broadband, specifically to our port district, and basically the discussion was (about) the importance of knowing what is currently being and not being served, as well as the current speed of service for our rural areas,” Ripp said. “The big thing is having Petrichor help through this process. They think our project qualifies (for the grant).”

Washougal internet provider also focused on rural connectivity

The Federal Communication Commission defines broadband as at least 25 megabytes per second for downloads and three megabytes per second for uploads.

“Our area outside of the city limits definitely does not reach anywhere near that for any of that service,” said Cory Schruth, the chief executive officer of NocTel Fiber, a Washougal-based internet provider.

Cagle agreed.

“Back in August, I was really struggling, and I did an internet speed test and sent a screenshot to our IT (department) at work,” she said. “My download speed was 8.5 megabytes per second, and my upload was 0.13 (megabytes). Our IT guy said, ‘The upload speed is way too low — it needs to be at least one megabyte. I’m shocked you can even send an email.'”

The ability to connect high-speed broadband internet service to residences in rural East Clark County is hampered by a variety of challenges, according to Schruth.

“A lot of the areas that we’re working in actually don’t have telephone poles, which makes it even more (challenging). Actually putting in a conduit and putting the fiber underground takes a lot of time. It’s not like in town, where you go and hang fiber on the existing telephone poles and run drop-lines to people. It’s a little more complex than that,” he said, adding that East Clark County also has a lot of rocky areas. “Trying to get through that stuff is what slows us down. Out in the rural areas there’s definitely a lot of hurdles and obstacles, and our team is very, very good at getting through them all.”

The age of the equipment also contributes to slowdowns, Schruth said.

“Ziply took over a lot of legacy, really old, under-maintained gear from previous providers, whether it be GTE or Horizon or Frontier,” he said. “Those areas were just forgotten; that’s why our slogan at Noctel is ‘fiber for the forgotten.’ Ziply has done a good job, but they have a lot of work to do because (they don’t) just serve the Washougal area — they have 800 markets that they’re trying to solve at the same time.”

Cagle said her Ziply provider told her that her internet service is limited by its bandwidth.

“When we talk to Ziply, they say, ‘You have the fastest internet available,'” she said. “It’s based on copper wires, and there’s only so much bandwidth, and it’s shared between everyone on Ziply who lives in that area. When you get 400-plus homes, I don’t even know how many, trying to use the same service at the same time, it just drags, and we struggle. I have done research trying to find out a different option. I did contact NocTel, and unfortunately they’re just a mile away from my house. A mile is a long way when you’re hoping to put in actual fiber.”

Like Cagle, Port Commissioner Larry Keister lives in rural Washougal. Rather than struggle with slow internet speeds at his home, Keister has been driving to the Port office to participate in virtual meetings during the pandemic.

“(The rural areas) are where it’s expensive, and that’s why we have very poor Wi-Fi connections,” Keister told the other Port commissioners during the March 2 meeting. “Nobody wants to spend the money to put the wires in.”

Schruth hasn’t let these types of obstacles stop him from trying to bring high-speed internet to rural Camas-Washougal. In 2018, Schruth started NocTel Fiber, originally known as the Ammeter Fiber Network, after moving from Portland to rural Washougal.

“I started a telecommunications company (that) provides voiceover IP services primarily to businesses, education and government over a decade ago,” he said. “(In 2018), I talked to my employees and we all decided to move across the river and set up an office in downtown Washougal. It worked out pretty well, and also aligned with me selling my house in Portland and looking for property up in the Washougal area.”

After purchasing a property on Ammeter Road, Schruth soon discovered he was having trouble with his rural Washougal internet connection.

“I said, ‘Great, we’ll just call up Comcast and get service and all will be well.’ Then I had the same realization that everybody has when they move to this area. I did a little bit of research, and I started talking with some of the neighbors, and I realized that (internet connectivity) is a big problem. Two- to three-megabyte DSL (digital subscriber line) was what they were typically receiving on a good day, barely enough to do email, streaming, web surfing or anything like that,” he said.

Schruth decided to construct a small network to allow area residents to increase their internet connectivity speeds from as little as one megabyte per second to around 50 megabytes per second.

“I started hunting around a little bit and found some microwave pathways to get us some bandwidth from East Vancouver to the top of the mountain,” he said. “We hooked up the initial 12 houses on our side, and it went extremely well. I figured that would be a nice short-term solution as we continue to work through all of the government hoops to get bandwidth up the hill.”

Word of Schruth’s network quickly spread on social media, and within a year it had 44 houses in its system. NocTel Fiber has connected eight rural neighborhoods with internet service and is currently working on a ninth.

“We have quite a few customers online, and everybody’s getting a minimum of 50 megabytes, and we have additional faster service plans as well,” Schruth said. “We’re not the cheapest game in town, but we are the consistent one. We are able to provide and guarantee those speeds.”

Now, the company is set on finding what Schruth calls “the areas that are hurting the most.”

“(What the Port is doing) seems like an interesting concept, and there could be some potential synergies there,” Schruth said. “Obviously we don’t want to build too much competition. Competition is good, but we all want to work together to really get 100 percent of our community connected and not try to overbuild each other. That’s kind of what started our whole game as well. We’re just working in areas that Comcast and Ziply weren’t interested in. That’s been 100 percent of our focus, to reach out and get people online.”