West End working toward rural broadband access
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Lonnie Archibald/for Peninsula Daily News
Forks City Attorney Rod Fleck discusses broadband service at a meeting last week in Forks on planning for extending access to rural areas.

By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News

FORKS — A hodgepodge of government officials and tribal leaders gathered in Forks last week to kick off a yearlong planning effort to improve broadband access on the West End.

The Washington State University Extension offices in Clallam and Jefferson counties received a $70,000 grant from the state Department of Commerce Broadband Office to develop an action plan to level the playing field for rural communities.

“It was a regional planning thing for better coverage and higher speed,” said Clallam County Commissioner Mike Doherty, one of about 50 attendees at the all-day workshop.

“Some folks out there are still on dial-up.”

After a series of presentations, the group broke into smaller “action committees” that will reconvene in the coming months to identify specific broadband needs for schools, public safety and tribes.

December meeting

The entire group will meet again in December.

The grant includes funding for the gap needs assessment.

“There was a lot of positive participation and people excited to get the ball rolling on this,” said Clea Rome, Clallam County WSU Extension director.

While Forks has had broadband service since 2001, many areas off the U.S. Highway 101 corridor still lack reliable Internet, Forks City Attorney and Planner Rod Fleck said.

Rome said broadband access “varies from place to place” on the West End, with some areas getting “hardly any service at all.”

A lack of broadband puts students at a disadvantage, Rome said.

Clallam Bay students, for example, have broadband access at school but can't complete their homework assignments online because of a lack of reliable Internet.

Tribal scenarios

Similar scenarios exists for the Quileute, Makah and Hoh tribes.

“In Forks, they have fiber [cables] to City Hall and the hospital,” Doherty said.

“But if you head down the road, some people are still on copper wire.”

Fleck said his role at the meeting was to discuss how Forks implemented broadband and how it may help other communities.

“Many places in the city of Forks and the Forks Prairie have broadband access at the 5-[megabyte]-to-10-megabyte level,” Fleck said.

The meeting was co-sponsored by the North Olympic Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development Council.

It was attended by representatives of U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor; U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Bothell; and U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace, all of whom represent the North Olympic Peninsula.

“There's huge congressional interest in this,” Fleck said.

“That was very apparent.”

Keynote speakers

Keynote speakers included Will Saunders, broadband policy and program manager for the state Department of Commerce Broadband Office, and Bill Schrier, senior policy adviser for the state Office of the Chief Information Officer and chairman of the state Interoperability Executive Committee.

Schrier, former chief technology officer for the city of Seattle, presented an overview of FirstNet, a nationwide public safety broadband network for first responders.

“He was there to kind of help shepherd one the aspects of this thing, the public safety part,” Doherty said.

Two representatives from CenturyLink, the West End's main Internet provider, took notes at the meeting.

In addition to the public safety, education and entertainment components of broadband, Rome said a lack of reliable Internet access can impair economic development.

She cited a Friday New York Times article that appeared in Sunday's Peninsula Daily News about a lack of minorities visiting national parks, which focused on Olympic National Park.

The article concluded with an anecdote about the park's slow Internet connection.

“There's a huge need for increased capacity in broadband,” Rome said.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 11. 2013 5:46PM
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