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Cowlitz County, Petrichor look to extend broadband on west side of county

Cowlitz County internet speeds

The Cowlitz County government and a publicly owned corporation of state ports are looking to extend broadband around rural sections of western Cowlitz County.

Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments Executive Director Bill Fashing said a recent report by the county and the publicly owned Petrichor identified a target area north of Longview, south of Castle Rock and west of West Side Highway to expand high-speed internet access. He could not give the estimated size of the area or how many households would be affected since the project is in the planning stages.

The plan

Fashing said applications are being submitted to several state and federal grants and he hopes to “land one or two of them over the next year.” The plan is to install fiber infrastructure to county households, and lease the system to a private Internet Service Provider to hook up connections. The first grant application to the state broadband office is due Thursday and Cowlitz County is the lead applicant, he added.

Fashing said broadband development has been a longtime strategy for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments, which provides economic development direction for the region. The organization “initially hired” Petrichor to identify county broadband needs, he added. In May, the council formed a team to specifically address broadband expansion, according to its website, stating the pandemic emphasized how important reliable internet access is “for education, business, health care and emergency response.”

At the Sept. 14 Cowlitz County Public Utility District meeting, board members decided during a discussion not to join Petrichor in applying for grants at this time. PUD Communication and Public Relations Manager Alice Dietz said the short turnaround time to apply for funds contributed to the decision, though the board supports Petrichor’s work.

Petrichor is a public corporation formed in 2020 to expand broadband access to underserved communities. The corporation is comprised of the Port of Kalama, and five ports outside Cowlitz County: Ridgefield, Bellingham, Pasco, and Whitman and Skagit counties.

Port of Woodland broadband project gets $2 million grant for final phase

High-speed access

The majority of people in Cowlitz County have internet access, but cannot always connect to what the Federal Communications Commission defines as “high-speed broadband.”

According to the Washington State Department of Commerce, roughly 67% of Cowlitz County respondents on a 2020 broadband survey said their download connection speed was just at the FCC’s threshold or below. About 49% said their upload speed was below the FCC’s indicator. The FCC’s download threshold is 25 megabits per second and the upload limit is 3 megabits per second.

The state reports 8.6% of Cowlitz County residents who responded to the survey do not have internet access at all.

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According to the American Association of Port Authorities, the current situation came from a combination of factors, most of them pandemic-related. First, U.S. consumer spending dropped 30 % in April 2020 before rebounding sharply later in the year, shocking the supply chain “that had throttled back as economies fell into recession.”

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