Washington Communities See Millions In New Rural Broadband Grants

Washington State Seal

The Port Of Whitman County is one of several rural Washington communities set to nab another major infusion of broadband grants courtesy of federal Covid disaster relief. A fresh infusion of $1.1 million announced last week will help the County expand a five city (Palouse, Garfield, Oakesdale, Tekoa and Rosalia) fiber expansion project to 104 unserved homes.

In partnership with Ziply Fiber, the Port will bring fiber connectivity to those homes that were not included in the first phase of the project. According to city officials, construction will begin in the fall 2023 and be complete by spring 2024.

Ziply Fiber logo

It’s part of a broader $121 million in new broadband grant awards doled out by the Washington State Broadband Office to expand access to affordable broadband service across traditionally underserved portions of the state. All told, the new awards will be used to fund more than 19 different projects, bringing improved broadband access to nearly 15,000 state residents.

“These grants will provide initial service availability to 14,794 end users located across the state, in communities as diverse as the San Juan Islands, Kittitas County and the Spokane reservation,” Washington Broadband Office Director Mark Vasconi said of the latest round of funding.

The funds, part of the $10 billion Coronavirus Capital Project Fund, were made possible by the The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The funding comes on the heels of the first round of funding announced by Washington state leaders last March, which doled out $145 million in Broadband Infrastructure Acceleration grants across thirteen different communities.

This latest funding round was awarded to a diverse array of projects, including several Washington state utilities and PUDs (public utility districts), numerous county digital divide initiatives, several Washington state cooperatives, and an ongoing effort by Spokane Tribe leaders aimed at shoring up fiber access to rural portions of the state.

“Broadband access is essential infrastructure, providing a critical gateway to education, health care, social and economic opportunities,” Washington Commerce Director Mike Fong said in a statement. “This funding is the next significant step toward our goal to have high-speed internet access available to every Washington resident and business.”

All told, Washington state leaders set aside $260 million of Washington’s Rescue Plan funds to provide grants for broadband infrastructure projects. The state says it received a total of $316 million in grant applications for more than 50 different broadband expansion projects across the state, exceeding available funding by 261 percent.

Washington has seen an explosion in creative alternative broadband deployment projects made possible by both an historic influx of Covid relief and infrastructure bill broadband funding, as well as the state’s recent 2021 decision to eliminate counterproductive state restrictions on community broadband deployments.

Port of Whitman County building

The latest funding round shines a particularly bright light on the growing popularity of PUDs, which are paving the way on rural broadband expansion after played a critical role in electrifying the state by harnessing the region’s rivers starting in 1934.

Elimination of burdensome state barriers (often backed by entrenched incumbent monopolies keen on protecting regional fiefdoms from competition) allowed PUDs to deliver broadband access on a retail basis, bringing an additional competitive option to Washington residents long struggling for faster, less expensive access.

“Unfortunately we could not fund all who applied,” Vasconi said, “but we are pleased that this round of grants, as well as future funding efforts administered by the Washington State Broadband Office, will bring us closer to our goal of ensuring that all Washingtonians have reliable access to broadband service.”