The mission of the Port of Columbia is to maximize public resources and private investment to create jobs, provide infrastructure, and maintain and improve the economic vitality of Columbia County. As part of this mission, we work constantly to identify new opportunities for our community.

In March of 2018, one of these opportunities arrived when Substitute House Bill 2664 was signed in to law. This bill gives ports in Washington State the authority to build broadband infrastructure in their jurisdictions. This authority perfectly encompasses our role at the Port. We can use the public resources to build a dark fiber line that any private internet service provider can lease to provide faster, more reliable internet to residents of Columbia County.

Quality high speed internet is a necessity if we want Columbia County to remain economically solvent. Businesses will not locate in rural areas without access to good internet. Employees will choose to live in other areas if they can’t get the speeds and reliability they need. The large internet companies are not putting their resources in to rural America. As often happens, rural America needs to help itself.

In a broadband survey conducted by the Port of Columbia in October 2018, we found that a majority of our community members were either unhappy with or wanted improvements to their existing internet options. This knowledge, combined with the economic necessity of good internet, has led us to conclude that we need to consider taking advantage of the new authorities granted by HB 2664. The Port of Columbia intends to apply for a planning grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board to determine if a Port-built broadband network is the right choice for our community.

The feasibility study that results from this planning grant will answer a variety of questions about the construction of a broadband network. First, it will examine our existing internet options and determine if additional infrastructure is even needed. Second, it will look at the financial viability of such a project in Columbia County. Third, it will analyze emerging internet technologies to make sure that a broadband network won’t be obsolete in the near future. If the end result of the feasibility study supports the needs for Port-owned broadband infrastructure, then we will seek construction funds to build the network within the next year.

A few important things to note. First, HB 2664 does not give ports the authority to become internet service providers. Instead, we would be “building a toll road” of fiber that any private internet service provider can pay to use to provide internet service to their customers. Essentially, the Port is taking on the construction, operations, and maintenance costs of the infrastructure, leaving ISPs to spend their time and money on improving their customers’ experience.

Second, the cost of construction, operations, and maintenance of a Port-owned broadband network will not be paid with Columbia County tax dollars. Instead, the construction cost will be funded through state programs and operations and maintenance through the revenues from leases paid by the ISPs.

Finally, public input and partners is imperative to make this a successful project. We’ll be convening a Community Broadband Team to help guide the planning process. We’ll be holding a Community Broadband Meeting to hear input from residents and businesses on what your internet needs are and how new broadband infrastructure may meet them. The goal of this project is to better serve Columbia County residents, and we look forward to hearing from all of you as this process continues.

Kathryn Witherington is economic development coordinator for the Port of Columbia.

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