Open Access Fiber Network Comes to Rural Enclave in Washington

whatcom pud logo

Public Utility Districts across the state of Washington have become key players in building out high-speed Internet infrastructure for residents and businesses in rural parts of the Evergreen State. One of those PUD’s, the Whatcom County Public Utility District (PUD) is now leading that charge in one of the most difficult-to-reach parts of the state, building an open access dark fiber network that will bring high-speed connectivity to over a thousand homes and businesses in Point Roberts.

Point Roberts is a pen-exclave of Washington State, about 25 miles south of Vancouver. (Pen-exclave: an area that can only be accessed through another country – in this case, Canada). The rural community, known for its peaceful beaches and mountain views, as well as its orca and eagle populations, is just under 5 square miles and home to about 1,200 residents.  

Designated to the United States in 1846 as the border between the United States and Canada was drawn along the 49th parallel, Point Roberts has a distinct geographic identity, which presents a unique challenge when it comes to building broadband infrastructure.

border crossing sign

The most practical way to access the town is by car from Canada, though an emergency ferry served the community during the pandemic while the border was closed. The town has a school that serves children up to the third grade. Older students have to cross the Canadian border into British Columbia and then back into the United States to get to the closest American middle and high schools in Blaine, Washington – about 40 minutes away. Similarly, residents also have to cross the border multiple times to visit the doctor or pick up prescriptions.  

Though many Candians cross the border into Point Roberts to take advantage of the cheaper groceries and gas, or to pick up packages they've mailed there to avoid international shipping, there are over a thousand permanent residents who live in town and who have long been dealing with the community’s infrastructure quirks.  

Whidbey Telecom, a local, privately-owned Internet Service Provider (ISP) that serves a few areas in Washington’s San Juan Islands, currently provides coverage to about half of those living in Point Roberts. The company offers DSL services of up to 50 Mbps starting at $50/month, and has been expanding out its gig-capable fiber connections, which are available to customers starting at $65/month.  

But Whidbey Telecom doesn’t serve everyone in the community, and that’s where the Point Roberts open access network comes in. The network will comprise 25 miles of fiber, both laid underground and strung aerially, and will reach everyone in Point Roberts. Subscribers should start getting hooked up by the end of next year.

Chris Heimgartner, General Manager of Whatcom County PUD, told ILSR that multiple ISPs are already interested in offering their services using the open access network. Atul Deshmane, Whatcom PUD Commission President, said of the project:

“[It’s a] good example of collaboration between the Point Roberts Community, Whatcom County Government, the Port of Bellingham, and Whatcom PUD.”

Though contract negotiations have yet to be finalized, the network is expected to be funded by $3.15 million in American Rescue Plan funding, granted to the PUD by the Washington State Broadband Office. Whatcom County will contribute another $350,000 of its own funds. That money is expected to cover the cost to run last-mile fiber connections to homes in Point Roberts, while other plans are in the works to provide backhaul.

Middle Mile Support for Point Roberts and Others

The Point Roberts build is just a part of what is happening across the northwestern part of Washington to improve connectivity for residents. Andrew Entrikin, Broadband Manager for Whatcom County PUD, estimates that more than 14,000 homes and businesses are still unserved and underserved across the county. He expects the PUD to be able to leverage additional forthcoming federal funds to continue expanding connectivity in the area.

American Rescue Plan Act pic

Whidbey Telecom, for example, recently received $11.8 million in funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act’s Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program, administered by NTIA. With this grant, the company plans to deploy over 110 miles of underground fiber (63 miles of which will be undersea), which will provide backhaul to Point Roberts, as well as for 80,000 premises in Whidbey Island; 5,000 in Lummi Nation; and 17,000 in San Juan County; and for the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

An added benefit of building the middle mile network will be the improved connectivity for anchor institutions in the region, not the least of which are the schools in Blaine, Washington. And though it’s about 26 miles away from Point Roberts, the Blaine School District serves more than 2,000 students, many of whom make the daily cross-border commute from the little pen-exclave. After all the work is done, it puts the area in a good position to provide students high quality broadband connections to get their work done both at school and at home. 

Inline image of USA/Canada border sign courtesy of The Center for Land Use Interpretation, Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)