Broadband coming to Adams County
First phase of $10.7 million project is underway
Last updated 4/12/2023 at 5:23pm
RITZVILLE – Since the height of the pandemic in 2021, extending broadband capacity has become a priority for Adams County Commissioner Dan Blankenship and other county leaders.
They’ve pushed the project forward because Adams County is a “broadband desert,” according to Blankenship.
He likens the current situation to rural electrification efforts during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In those years, it became a national priority to extend electricity to the countryside.
“We’re trying to do the same thing here,” he said.
“Speeds aren’t fast enough and our ability to use the internet in multiple areas is limited,” he said. “For a long time, those shortfalls have hurt us in terms of economic development. People want to establish businesses that require a certain level of broadband capacity, and we just don’t have it.”
During the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns — when students were prohibited from attending school in person — many households struggled, especially if they had three or four students.
“Our internet capacity was woefully inadequate,” he said.
Broadband extends frequencies so data can move faster.
Defined as “high-speed Internet access that’s always on and faster than traditional dial-up access,” the term “broadband” includes several high-speed transmission technologies: Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), Cable Modem, Fiber, Wireless, Satellite, and Broadband over Powerlines, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Another source defines broadband as “a high-capacity transmission technique using a wide range of frequencies, which enables many messages to be communicated simultaneously.”
Every state is now required to have a broadband office. Washington’s office, which operates as a division of the Department of Commerce, has been open for about three years. Broadband grants are available from the department’s Public Works Board as well.
“We jumped in and asked folks to help us write the initial broadband grant request,” Blankenship said.
Although the county scored high on its initial proposal, the city of Ritzville’s project and the county’s project didn’t get funded.
Then the state broadband office opened another window for broadband proposals.
In the new round of grants, applicants were given extra points if they could demonstrate a regional approach to their projects.
Based on those incentives and parameters, Blankenship approached the mayors of Washtucna, Lind, Ritzville and Othello. He wanted the county to prepare a single application on behalf of all parties.
But while the county waited to learn whether that application had succeeded, the Public Works Board funded Washtucna’s grant application separately.
“That was great for them, because those grants didn’t have a matching requirement,” Blankenship said.
Currently, the county’s broadband project focuses on towns.
“The county concentrated on more-populated areas because we wanted to keep applications under $10,000 per house served,” according to Blankenship. “That wasn’t a definite requirement, but sort of an unwritten rule.”
In sparsely populated areas, a higher cost per household made grant approval less likely.
‘Tucna pulls out
Because Washtucna pulled out of the joint project, the county negotiated with the Commerce officials to revise grant requirements.
“They allowed us to forego the full 10% match. After the Washtucna project was removed from the original award, our matching amount was reduced from about $1 million to $360,000,” he said. “The city of Ritzville will cover a significant portion of that cost.
“It was a very welcome development.”
As currently configured, the project will serve all businesses, as well as “anchor institutions” (such as schools, healthcare centers and libraries) and homes in Ritzville, Lind and areas south and west of Othello.
When the initial phase is complete, the broadband infrastructure will include about 1,200 sites in Ritzville, 850 outside of Othello, and 285 in Lind, Blankenship said.
“All those locations will have the opportunity to buy fiber-to-home internet,” he said.
The county will own the infrastructure and lease network space to internet service providers.
The county, however, will not be responsible for day-to-day operations. Providers will sell the service and bill customers directly.
“As a result, broadband operations won’t be a huge management nightmare for the county,” Blankenship said.
Once the backbone of the network is installed in towns, the county plans to extend the network to more rural areas.
“We’re not sure yet how that will happen, but the state has allowed us to hire a contractor to do design work,” he said. “When more funding becomes available, we want to extend the network into agricultural locations where precision farming applications haven’t been workable.”
According to Blankenship, substantial federal funding will be available this summer to extend broadband to unserved or underserved areas.
As part of that effort, the state has required applicants to create digital equity plans to ensure that all groups have access to the broadband infrastructure. The goal is to involve many parties — including representatives from the county, cities, schools, and medical facilities — to ensure that all affected parties have a voice.
The project is expected to cost $10.7 million. The state grant will cover most of that amount ($10.3 million).
Project design started earlier this year.
Blankenship expects the design process to be completed by the fall of 2023, and construction to begin soon after. The county hopes to finish the first phase of the project by the end of 2024.
Based on recent conversations with Petrichor Broadband, the Washington consulting firm hired to design the broadband infrastructure, Blankenship outlined changes residents can expect when the new technology becomes fully functional.
Broadband lines containing rubber hookups will be attached to telephone poles outside homes and businesses (though some lines may be installed underground). Each hookup will have a specific number. Service providers will plug into the hookup and run a “drop line” to the customer’s home or business.
Hookups will also connect to central sites called “collocations” where providers can plug in their servers.
“It’s remarkable how little space will be required to coordinate all of that,” Blankenship said. “Each town will have a small facility containing racks for each provider that uses the service.”
Once built, could the broadband infrastructure become obsolete?
Newer technologies should continue to be delivered via fiber-optic cable, according to Blankenship.
“I don’t see any downside to more Broadband access, unless, of course, it means kids will spend more time gazing at computer screens,” he said, noting this will be a stand-alone system for internet only. Phone service will be separate.
The project, as envisioned, will be “open access” for at least three years under state requirements. That should encourage competition between providers, which may be a net positive for consumers.
“You should get a lot better service than you have now, and you’ll probably spend less money,” Blankenship said.
“As someone who has shepherded this process and gotten the money approved, I’m beginning to take on the role of an observer,” he said.
The county also resurrected a dormant Broadband Action Team, currently led by Adams County Development Council Executive Director Kyle Niehenke.
Niehenke echoed Blankenship’s remarks.
“The action team is important because without community support, this is a long lonely road,” he said.
He encourages people to visit the development council’s website (www. growadamscounty.com) as well as its Facebook page. “Both sites enable us to share with the community,” Niehenke said. “Folks can see what we’re doing and when we meet.”
Residents can also access the state’s broadband office website. That site that allows them to submit an internet speed test. “Speed tests demonstrate to the state why we need better internet speeds, which in turn helps with our funding requests,” said Niehenke.
“I’m thankful for the commissioners’ leadership,” he said. “We want to cover all of Adams County with broadband. But it will take the whole community to ‘move the needle’ forward.”