PUD plans internet questionnaire: Survey part of strategy to expand broadband

PORT TOWNSEND — Jefferson County Public Utility District officials plan to survey customers about their internet needs.

Commissioners aim to help expand access to broadband infrastructure throughout the county and will gather information though a survey of customers March 19-25.

“We are going to be getting more information on what internet and what broadband access is available in Jefferson County,” said Will O’Donnell, PUD communications manager.

“We will be doing a survey of the county’s households and businesses to find out how they are using the internet, what kind of access they have and what kind of speeds they have,” he said.

Denver-based Magellan Advisors worked with PUD staff and members of the Citizens Advisory Board broadband subcommittee to develop the fact-finding questionnaire that will be made available to customers through an online portal. A link to a speed test is part of the survey along with questions about cost, what the internet is used for and how reliable it is.

Those without internet service will participate in a shorter survey that will be inserted in their utility bill.

The deadline for responses to the survey will be May 1.

Commissioners will consider a revised set of survey questions March 19 after critical comments were made about the survey questions Tuesday.

Commissioner Dan Toepper suggested that staff take the survey as a test run before sending it out.

Commissioner Kenneth Collins felt the survey was too long, too granular and agreed that test-running it with employees before it is released was a good idea.

“It strikes me that there are questions we need to know having to do with demand, what’s the quality of the service and how interested people are in having better service,” Collins said. “Those questions are key.”

He believed that “a number of seniors in the community will be somewhat perplexed by the number of questions, and I would like to see maximum response.”

Community member Tom Thiersch said that the terms “broadband” and “high-speed” were used randomly and interchangeably in the survey. He felt the demographic questions were invasive and served little purpose. He said he would provide a marked-up copy of the survey for commissioners to review.

Thiersch added that the survey responses will be part of the public record and subject to disclosure.

Randy Trost, senior broadband consultant with Magellan — which was selected in December to provide planning services to the PUD, funded with a grant from the Community Economic Revitalization Board — told commissioners that broadband has several definitions.

“The term broadband has become a little broad, no pun intended,” Trost said. “Someone who only has dial-up considers it broadband. The FCC has its definition. Everyone uses broadband differently. We’ve canceled our TV subscriptions to use Netflix. Schools use it for distance learning in some of the more rural areas. There’s telemedicine, aging in place, smart cities.”

Trost said that because of the lack of economies of scale, it becomes cost-prohibitive for for-profit companies to help deploy broadband. There is no return on investment. But working with a utility can be an answer, he said.

PUDs in Washington are not allowed to sell internet to the end user. But they can help when building out infrastructure.

“PUDs are unique and the reason they are looking at broadband is that people look at broadband as equivalent to water power and sewer,” Trost said.

“Electric companies are good at doing infrastructure. They are connecting their systems and that connection is often done with fiber optic cables. The cost of broadband for a carrier is largely based on getting fiber into the ground. It’s expensive.

“Once it’s in the ground, it isn’t exorbitant,” Trost continued. “The PUD has access if they are putting in fiber to run their systems. There is an opportunity to make that excess capacity available to the community in general. That’s what we are looking at.”

Trost said he hopes to get at least a 5 percent take rate, or about 1,000 responses.

O’Donnell said: “We’ll use that information so hopefully in the future we can apply for more grants and look at ways to explore opportunities to expand broadband infrastructure and access in our county.”

O’Donnell said he is looking for help from other county stakeholders, including Jefferson County, the city of Port Townsend, the Port of Port Townsend and others to encourage people to respond to the survey.

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Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected].

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