Pierce County must lead to expand broadband access and speed

Pierce County must lead to expand broadband access and speed

The broadband study is out and it makes clear that Pierce County is falling behind our peers. Our economic future depends on expanding broadband access and speed.

In late 2017 I sponsored a performance audit of our broadband assets, policies, and to make recommendations to improve access to high-speed broadband service throughout the county. Starting mid last year, the consultants met with everyone from consumers, agency staff, and industry officials to develop their findings.

I’ll describe the main themes here before getting to details of the report.

Inadequate access to high-speed broadband is an impediment to economic development in Pierce County

We’ve known for some time that poor access was costing Pierce County jobs and investment. While in some parts of our urban area, quality broadband is in fact available, that’s not the case throughout.

The problem is even worse in rural areas where the digital divide seems more like a chasm. My constituents complain regularly, and rightfully, about crawling service well beneath the level they pay for. That’s when there isn’t a complete service interruption.

The Internet is so ubiquitous in our daily business lives it’s become invisible — at least until the moment you lose it. It’s the 21st century equivalent of water, sewer, or electricity to economic development. That’s why it’s imperative that we set about a strategy to improve access and quality.

Pierce County should lead

County government in Washington serves three functions. We’re the local government for areas outside cities. As subdivisions of the State, we act as it’s agent delivering services on its behalf. Then there’s regional and countywide functions that we take up on behalf and in partnership with our constituent cities for sake of efficiency.

When dealing with utilities which cross our jurisdictional boundaries, there’s an incentive to work together. We can play a convening role and partner with cities to be stronger than the sum of our parts.

Make targeted public investments and partner with private providers

There’s a few models for broadband development. Wait for the private sector to serve everyone; that’s effectively what we’re doing now. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the public model with government pushing all-in to become the retail provider of service, like many other utilities.

Then there’s the model recommended in the report. It suggests a middle path that’s less risky to taxpayers but provides incentives for the private sector to invest.

Adopt policies that encourage private investment

Regardless of the investment model we select, it’s in our interest to adopt policies for land use and engineering that reduce costs and time to rollout service. For example, dig-once policies ensure fiber or conduit is laid anytime a road cut is made by utilities. We should also ease access to utility poles, and develop franchise agreements that are predictable across jurisdictional lines.

This will all take a tremendous amount of work and coordination across jurisdictional lines. That’s why I’m recommending that Pierce County create a broadband coordinator position within the Economic Development Department to work with each agency and jurisdiction and champion smart policies.

You can read the full report in all it’s 115 paged glory here, but these are the bulleted recommendations:

Action 1: Develop internal capacity and engage external stakeholders

  • Prioritize broadband fiber deployment as a County strategy
  • Implement projects that deliver significant economic and social benefits
  • Assign or acquire staff to facilitate broadband strategic plan across departments
  • Establish a Broadband Task force
  • Internal and external stakeholder representatives
  • Attract broadband and tech sector companies
  • Develop long term buildout plan and budget for a middle mile network, aligned with planned county and city investments in infrastructure
  • Identify public assets to be offered and used for broadband deployment
  • Apply for funding and capitalize on opportunities to get fiber in the ground (grants, CIPs, dig once and partnerships with state and federal governments)
  • Reconnect Program through RUS

Action 2: Make County policy changes that can be shared with cities alongside providers

  • Extend offer to help localities use policy
  • Implement dig once and joint trench rules and guidelines to improve costs and pace of broadband deployment
  • Develop and share engineering standards for fiber-based infrastructure
  • Address any permitting barriers
  • Incorporate broadband in all planning and development agreement activities

Action 3: Seek private partners to co-invest

  • Produce requests for information (RFIs) based on this plan and Broadband Task Force guidance

Action 4: Two focus areas for immediate attention:

  • Address lack of affordable broadband on the Key Peninsula
  • Capitalize on infrastructure projects in Fredrickson