This story has been modified since its initial publication to reflect a correction.
In light of the myriad Zoom meetings in the regional workforce, the Port of Walla Walla zoomed into a grant application recently to look at the feasibility of increasing fiber optic internet in Walla Walla County.
Port Commissioner Kip Kelly did some research into the topic and presented the idea to fellow commissioners Ron Dunning and Mike Fredrickson at a May 28 meeting.
The commissioners unanimously approved Port staff to apply for a Community Economic Revitalization Board grant, which if approved would land the Port about $50,000 with a 20% match required. Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution Thursday, cementing the grant application.
“Essentially, many, many people that have a tech component to their work are free to move now, literally, around the country,” Kelly said.
“And the job’s portable — it will follow them.”
Kelly referenced a study that found 20% of jobs with more than a $200,000 annual salary contain at least a component of working from home.
He wondered, “if the future’s not necessarily recruiting (a 200-employee) company to come to Walla Walla, but 200 individuals that work for 200 different companies who choose Walla Walla, is broadband availability and bandwidth a barrier to them?”
He said he spoke to a manager at Amazon who implied the company is likely moving toward its employees mainly working from home, if they so desire. Twitter said in May that workers would not have to return to the office unless they want to.
Port Executive Director Pat Reay said a similar study of broadband in 2015 only looked at College Place and Walla Walla, but this would be a countywide approach.
Reay said part of the idea the last time fiber was studied was to “push” the legacy carriers.
“Let’s call them out,” Reay said. “They’re the ones delivering the service to house. Let’s up their game.”
That’s what ended up happening, Fredrickson said.
“At that time, it was believed that there was a lack of fiber in the community. What the study showed was that there was a ton of fiber, it’s just that they were holding on very tightly to it,” he said.
The process revealed internet providers have the infrastructure, which means anything the Port installs would be redundant.
“We saw prices start dropping,” Fredrickson said. “And then it’s faded away. ... We fell back down because we didn’t keep pushing. ... It would be nice to see if we have more fiber and how far we’ve come in six or seven years.”
Commissioners agreed it is time to revisit such a study, especially considering how many people are working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reay said ports have authority to operate fiber lines. In fact, two fiber runs exist right now for the Port — one on College Avenue to Rose Street and one on Alder Street.
Fredrickson wondered about funding from CERB and if applying for one grant would hinder other grant applications.
Reay said it didn’t appear to be the case, because CERB has an open grant right now with the Port’s Wallula-Dodd water system, and CERB staff did not indicate that it would hinder another grant application.
He said CERB is eager for the Port’s next project considering the water system is nearing its completion.
“In this instance ... Janea Delk, the executive director of CERB, encouraged us to apply,” Reay said.
He said this particular type of funding is running low for CERB, and “this application cycle will likely be the last for this program.”
Delk told staff time is of the essence and Walla Walla County seems to warrant a study.
Dunning pointed out fiber optic infrastructure development would be a huge expense compared to the study, especially considering the whole county is being looked at.
Reay agreed and said the Port is not expecting to be the lead agency funding that portion of development.
Port staff will inform commissioners at future meetings regarding updates around the CERB grant.