Government entities across the North Olympic Peninsula are seeking input from residents to verify broadband Internet access on a national map, the results of which could bring significant federal funding for broadband access.
The Federal Communications Commission has posted a map of broadband coverage on its website here: https://broadbandmap.fcc.gov/home. Residents can enter their address to find out if they have the minimum broadband coverage of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second (Mbps) upload and if broadband is available in their area.
The map plays a key role in how federal dollars from the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) fund will be allocated.
“The map does not accurately portray the lack of broadband access on the Peninsula,” said Casey Duff, outreach coordinator for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Mountlake Terrace.
For example, the map shows that most residents in the City of Port Angeles on a fixed broadband connection meet or exceed the 25 Mbps download speed and a 3 Mbps upload. Whereas the average residence in Neah Bay has a fixed broadband connection of less than 1 Mbps for upload and download and may not have the ability to be connected to broadband.
Anyone on the North Olympic Peninsula with less than 25 Mbps/3 Mbps or no connection to broadband at all can challenge the map and report the inaccuracy to the FCC by next Friday, Jan. 13.
“Ensuring the accuracy of this map is critical to the future of internet access across the state,” reads a press release from the City of Port Angeles. “BEAD funding is based on the state unserved population. Your location may be mistakenly listed as served and less likely to get state and federal resources.”
There are many areas across the Peninsula where access to broadband Internet is not possible due to infrastructure challenges.
In East Jefferson County, any area that does not have a significant population — such as Port Townsend, Port Hadlock, Irondale, Port Ludlow, Chimacum, Quilcene — likely does not have a connection to the Internet through broadband, according to Will O’Donnell, broadband and communications director for the Jefferson County Public Utility District.
“Any area that is not densely populated does not have access to broadband, and that is most of Jefferson County,” O’Donnell said.
There are some small communities in Jefferson County where Astound Internet provides access through cable service, but outside of those population centers, the vast majority of the county is not connected to broadband.
“Alternatives for those areas are DSL, satellite or cellular Internet service. All of those options present their own challenges such as the ability to reliably do remote work or school, telemedicine, those kinds of things that require high-speed internet,” O’Donnell said.
Most of those services run on older copper phone systems which cannot support the speeds needed for some of the modern two, teleconferencing and streaming services today.
Jefferson County has been working toward providing more access to broadband, so much so that the potential BEAD funding would be more of a “gap filler” than anything else.
“Right now the PUD has received $25 million in grant funding to build broadband access out to most of these rural areas of Jefferson County,” O’Donnell said. “So we will be covering that in the next couple of years.”
The story is similar in Clallam County, where the most populous areas have access to broadband and the more rural areas have less access.
The key difference in Clallam is getting grants approved for those rural areas that, on maps, like the one provided by the FCC, say the area has internet coverage through carriers like Centurylink, Wave, Astound and others.
“The FCC map is old. A new one is being worked on, but the current one is just polygons based on census blocks that show areas that the federal government will allow grants to be applied from. So you see what the federal government thinks are served and unserved areas,” said Shawn Delplain, broadband director for Clallam PUD.
The Clallam County Broadband Team, tasked with expanding internet access across the county, shared a similar view in an April 2021 report.
“What is not exemplary in Clallam County is access to broadband services,” the team said.
The 2021 report said 28 percent of homes had no access to broadband services, which are defined as internet access with speeds of at least 3 Mbps upload and 25 Mbps download. Many had broadband access have internet access, but some are at or near dial-up speeds even though they may be accessing a digital subscriber line (DSL) connection.
Internet service quality tends to decrease as one travels west in the county, and one of the largest barriers for these unserved areas in Clallam is the lack of profitability for private carriers.
“It’s really expensive to run fiber in areas where there is a lot of distance between homes and not a lot of people,” Delplain said.
“If there are 16 miles, and in that 16 miles there are 15 homes, so one home per mile, that costs a lot. The internet provider might be getting $50/ $60 a month per home, but if there is a fiber break out there, it might cost $6,000 to put back together, and after labor and everything, those companies lose close to three years in revenue,” he added.
“There is just not a lot of incentive.”
Another issue is that grants will often be denied if it seems like there is coverage from an internet provider.
“The unfortunate thing is if there is an area served here and an area served there, there’s this area in the middle that goes unserved, but you have to go through the served areas, and a lot of times those areas are not eligible for these grants because part of that area is served,” Delplain said.
The hope with the FCC map and having people report to the FCC if they have broadband will better show the gaps in served and unserved areas.
Reporter Ken Park can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org