Washington public agencies win $121M to extend rural broadband

State administrators overruled or helped mediate telecom objections that have previously disqualified local governments from similar grant awards.

the Grays Harbor PUD building

A Grays Harbor Public Utility District building in Elma, Washington. The utility recently won a $6.9 million grant to expand broadband access after previously losing out on funding opportunities due to objections from private telecom companies. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A long-awaited proposal to extend broadband networks into eastern Grays Harbor County won $6.9 million earlier this month as part of state infrastructure awards to 19 local projects to bring internet access to rural residents.

The state Broadband Office announced more than $121 million in new network grants in support of efforts at ports, counties, tribal governments and electric co-ops throughout the state. The Grays Harbor Public Utility District (PUD), which lost out on previous applications for parallel public broadband funding after industry pushback, celebrated the chance to get new customers connected. 

“The citizens out there have been waiting and waiting and they’ve heard promise after promise after promise,” said Rob Hanny, core services director for the utility. “To see this finally go is, it’s going to be a really neat thing for our community.” 

The funded projects are expected to connect some 15,000 residents to the internet statewide.

State legislators last year steered more than $400 million in federal stimulus dollars toward building internet facilities in unconnected, largely rural communities across the state. But some public entities struggled to access that funding after private telecommunications companies intervened, filing objections that spiked eight projects in 2022.

This story is a part of Crosscut’s WA Recovery Watch, an investigative project tracking federal dollars in Washington state.

Corporations like Comcast and Ziply filed 11 challenges to the 50 public broadband proposals under consideration, but most were mediated with applicants prior to state scoring, according to state broadband office records.

Program administrators overruled four telecom objections, citing insufficient evidence that companies already served or planned to serve area customers at adequate speeds, as well as concerns about enabling “monopoly power” over local systems.

Mark Vasconi, director of the Washington State Broadband Office, said telecom objections played no role in determining which proposals received funding, but the program still faced dozens of competitive applications vying for limited money.

“They’re all projects we’d like to be able to fund,” Vasconi said, “but we don’t have the money [to fund them all].”

New connections

Grays Harbor PUD previously sought funding from the state Department of Commerce in late 2021. Their pitch scored highly, but state administrators disqualified their application in response to an objection from Comcast, which offers service to a small portion of the customers within the PUD’s original proposal area.

This time, PUD leaders cut Comcast’s area out of their proposal, Hanny said. They also excluded nearby tracts where CenturyLink won federal funds to build out fiber.

The state’s rules require applicants to notify existing internet providers in the area before applying. The two parties then are encouraged to work out the company’s objections themselves before submitting. 

Sara Travers, telecom business coordinator at Grays Harbor PUD, said CenturyLink specifically requested the PUD exclude from its plan any areas the telecom had previously won funding for. Proposals seeking federal grants do not typically qualify for new federal money if an area has already received funding, even if the promised buildout has not yet materialized. 

All told, to help the PUD proposal comply with state and federal rules to avoid competition with private investments, they cut the project’s footprint nearly in half – from more than 900 households down to 550.

“It’s unfortunate,” Hanny said of the narrowed scope, “but this will [still] be the largest telecom project this utility has taken on.”

For the customers who got cut out, it’s still unclear when they might get connected. Hanny said it’s still possible the PUD could expand into those areas as part of a Phase Two project in the coming years. More grant opportunities are likely with an estimated $900 million coming to the state for broadband via the federal infrastructure law.

It’s also possible that the expanded PUD network will prompt private internet service providers to invest in extending service to those remote households the PUD couldn’t serve this time.

“Even if we don’t build it, if we help drive, push people to get to build it and get it done, to me that’s success,” Hanny said.

Objections overruled

Grays Harbor’s adjustments spared them any formal telecom pushback, but internet companies still challenged 11 of the 50 applications submitted this round. Documents posted on the Department of Commerce’s website show most of those objections were resolved via discussions between the applicant and the company. Four others were adjudicated by the Broadband office.

Vasconi said none of those four objections met the Broadband office’s criteria for legitimacy.

Two of the written decisions published on Commerce’s website provide some insight into the Broadband office’s decision-making process.

Find tools and resources in Crosscut’s Follow the Funds guide to track down federal recovery spending in your community.

One of the decisions involved Pend Oreille PUD. The utility has sought funding four times now, each time yielding an objection from Rural Telecom Inc. (RTI), an Idaho-based company that serves customers in the northeastern Washington border county. In the previous grant round, Pend Oreille’s application was disqualified based on RTI’s claim that they were in the process of building new lines and would hook up homes by 2024. 

In his decision, Vasconi wrote that RTI “produced no firm evidence” that the buildout the company promised last time it objected had actually occurred. He also cited the company’s use of bonded copper wire, a technology that he doubts could meet the state’s speed goals.

“This was the second time in over a year where they’re saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to be serving there,’ ” Vasconi said. “You’re talking about doing this stuff you haven’t [done] in the past when you said you were going to.”

Mark Martell of RTI disputed the office’s findings and said the company is working quickly to upgrade outdated telephone lines to fiber-optic cables, though he admitted that more than half of RTI’s system is still made of copper wire. He accused the PUD of wanting to “overbuild” the company.

“They just want the cream off the top is what they want,” Martell said. “We don’t have the best relationship, I’ll be honest with that.” 

Pend Oreille PUD’s application scored lower than numerous others and was not funded. But the utility’s leadership credited the Broadband Office for bringing them into a meeting with RTI and reaching out to discuss the details of the objection before ruling, something they said has not happened before.

“In the past rounds I feel like [the state] looked at the objections and just made a decision,” said Sarah Holderman, director of customer services for the utility. “This round was more interactive.”

Holderman added that the Broadband Office’s skepticism mirrors concerns her organization has raised about RTI potentially overstating their ability to serve customers. 

“We would love it if [RTI] came in and served the customers up there. … But what we’re hearing in the community is that’s not happening,” Holderman said. “It was nice to be validated by an outside entity saying, you’re right, they’re not fulfilling the needs of the community.”

The next round of broadband grants will open for applications through the state Public Works Board in June.

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Brandon Block

Brandon Block is an investigative reporter at Cascade PBS, focused on following the federal recovery money flowing into Washington state.