North county broadband expansion could see rescue plan funds

Rick Bannan / [email protected]

A plan for the county to invest $4.6 million of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to bring rural broadband to hundreds of homes northeast of Battle Ground has received initial support from the Clark County Council.

During an Aug. 10 work session, the council agreed to move forward on consideration of a rural broadband project for final approval Aug. 16. The project was one of a dozen requests for use of ARPA funding considered that day. The county has received $94.8 million, with $50.1 million already committed.

If completed, the project would result in 31 miles of fiber-optic broadband being built serving 503 “passings,” or connections available for households and businesses, according to a staff report. The additional infrastructure would be located to the east of Battle Ground Lake and south of the East Fork Lewis River, and would cover all unserved or underserved addresses in the project area.

The service would include speeds up to 100 megabits per second download and 20 megabits per second upload, the staff report stated, which meets Federal Communications Commission guidelines and allows for video streaming.

The total project cost is about $6.6 million, with Comcast matching the county’s contributiontion by close to $2 million. Comcast would own the infrastructure and would “be responsible for all design, construction, operation and maintenance,” the staff report stated.

Comcast sought the ARPA funds from the county as the population density of the area made it impossible for the company to enter the area entirely on its own.

“Absent governmental funding, project costs and estimated financial returns would not meet the standards Comcast has put in place for the purpose of identifying viable broadband construction projects,” Comcast stated in the staff report.

County senior policy analyst Lindsey Hueer said Comcast chose the area for the project in part due to its proximity to existing infrastructure. She said the company previously applied to the Washington State Broadband Office for grants for the area, but was unable to secure funding through that route.

Hueer said the project was “shovel-ready” once funding is secured. If approved, the county would need to go out for a public bidding process. Should Comcast be the bid selected, the company estimated it would be 18 months from receiving funds to project completion, Hueer said.

Hueer noted the county could also use ARPA funds for a match for state broadband office grants, but when those opportunities would arise was unknown.

Councilor Richard Rylander said a report in the next few months on other long-term broadband opportunities could show alternatives to Comcast’s proposal.

“As much as I would love to push broadband forward at this point, I don’t think it’s the best use of the funds reaching the broadest possible population to get the maximum benefit,” Rylander said.

Councilor Gary Medvigy said the project would serve as a “backbone” for potential expansion of the infrastructure in the future.

“Companies want broadband. They need high-speed internet. It’s an attraction. It has built whole cities and driven development in other areas of the country once it’s put ahead of time,” Medvigy said.

The staff report noted other counties including Spokane County have used ARPA funds for similar broadband projects.

Councilor Julie Olson said she was committed to ARPA money going to rural broadband.

“I think that this is a commitment that’s important to make to our community, especially our rural community,” Olson said.

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