County pursues plan to upgrade local internet access, quality
— Created October 12, 2022 by Melanie Hammons
By Melanie Hammons
A recent Town Hall chaired by Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair made the case for investing in infrastructure upgrades to enhance residential and commercial Internet service. The meeting’s subject covered FCC broadband (internet) mapping in Island County and ways the public can be involved in the process. St. Clair said the Town Hall’s goal was “to get people engaged.”
Joined by fellow Broadband Action Team members Kevin McCalmon and Stuart Wyatt, the Oct. 6online meeting conducted at the Camano Administration Building, explained the mapping process and the rationale behind pushing for infrastructure improvements.
“FCC mapping has been used to determine availability of internet providers and broadband infrastructure with a goal of open access,” St. Clair said. “It has historically set priority to determine funding to under and unserved areas of our nation.
“Unfortunately, their data has been highly inaccurate. For example, it showed Island County and Camano Island as ’97 percent covered’. We have been working for years to address this policy and bring investments to our county. We need your help to correct the data so we can expand coverage in our local communities.”
She compared the outreach to the 1930s Rural Electrification Project and said the state wants to see public benefit in order to award grants.
Stuart Wyatt gave a brief rundown on how internet gets to homes and businesses via DSL phone lines, low-earth orbit satellite, cable, or coaxial connections, and some of their limitations.
“There are very few cell towers on Camano Island. Cable users share the cable in each of a handful of regions. Low-earth orbit satellite users share a single base station, and Washington State only has a few base stations. Microwave requires line-of-sight, which precludes much of Camano,” Wyatt said.
One power point slide outlined the different services internet connections provide, and their corresponding broadband consumption. Video streaming by far topped the list, with an estimated 57 percent consumption of availability.
“Cable, coax, and phone lines are being stretched to the limit of their capacity,” said Wyatt. “They were never meant to handle the current speeds we are seeing.”
Estimated consumption is projected to double in the next couple of years, according to Wyatt.
“This means that if we don’t grow our infrastructure, there will be even more bottlenecks than we’re now seeing,” he explained.
Kevin McCalmon shared his own experience as a Comcast employee and small business owner.
“I’ve frequently encountered the frustration that these bottlenecks cause. Many times, it’s been so slow that I’ve taken my laptop and just gone to my house. The commercial equipment that I’ve personally paid to have installed there gives better service than what’s available in my storefront,” he said.
He agreed with St. Clair’s assessment of the FCC map.
“The data is inaccurate. People are not getting what the maps are currently showing. The real goal of what’s termed ‘open access,’ is for every single person to have quality service from a qualified provider,” McCalmon said.
To that end, tax dollars are to be channeled to areas demonstrating need. The FCC is now in the process upgrading its mapping, a process that will be open to public input. And those FCC mapping numbers, accurate ones, that is, are key to claiming grant awards. That’s where the public comes in.
“Our first step will be a challenge process. This means we prove we don’t have the coverage/quality that the FCC says we have. We gather bulk data, complete with specific addresses, such as for specific neighborhoods and HOAs, and upload to the FCC to better clarify unserved areas in our county,” St. Clair said. “This will be significant in our grant efforts. Step two, in November/December, will be to train individual internet users to upload their own data for accuracy of ‘fiber to the premises.’
“Also, we need to project usage rates, where we’ll be 20 years from now,” she continued. “Since demand is growing so quickly, by working with our local providers and taking advantage of government grants, we’ll be in a good position.”
A question-and-answer session followed the power point presentation.
One listener expressed a degree of skepticism about the FCC’s outlined challenge process. The listener said he would like to see a state-initiated challenge process as well, believing that it would yield better results. St. Clair appeared to agree, stating she was attempting to build a regional alliance around that concept.
Another participant asked how long it would take for upgrades to be completed, once grants were awarded.
“Availability follows construction,” St. Clair said. “I would estimate, anywhere between 18 – 24 months if construction were to take place, say, before the year’s end.”
If there was ever any doubt about the urgency of this proposal, the experience of the past couple of years should put it to rest, said St. Clair and McCalmon.
“We saw what happened during the pandemic,” St. Clair said. “People were largely conducting life, business, and education at home, using Zoom and the internet. The limited capacity affected us in many adverse ways, from children unable to complete schoolwork to people unable to access virtual medical appointments.”
For updates on this subject, sign up at email@example.com. People may view the power point slide presentation by sending requests to firstname.lastname@example.org. The telephone number is 360-679-7354.