The Port of Coupeville was recently awarded almost $5 million from the Washington State Public Works Board to expand broadband internet access in Central Whidbey.
Expansion of fiber optics infrastructure is expected to help level inequities in education, business and healthcare as households that have long been un- or under-served gain this critical access.
Port Executive Director Chris Michalopoulos said the $4,842,933 from the Public Works Board will be put toward the design and construction of an underground fiber network, as well as administration of the project, if the port can finalize private partnerships and prepare to get the project underway in time to accept the grant.
Though no official contracts have been signed yet by either party, the Port of Coupeville has an agreement in the works with Kirkland-based telecommunications company Ziply Fiber for the project. Michalopoulos said that if the partnership comes to fruition, Ziply would contribute the remainder of the project’s estimated $8 million price tag.
The port is also in negotiations with a project managing company called Petrichor Broadband, a corporation formed by six Washington state port districts to increase broadband access across the state. Project management would be funded by a $100,000 grant from Island County that the port was awarded earlier this year.
“There’s a lot of factors that have to be agreed upon before, not only the project moves forward, but before the grant is accepted,” Michalopoulos said.
The exact geographic areas served by the network that would be built with the grant money are yet to be determined, but Michalopoulos said the project was originally budgeted to accommodate 1,040 Central Whidbey homes that were found to have under-performing internet speeds in a feasibility study completed in 2020. The study was funded by a $50,000 grant from the state Community Economic Revitalization Board.
Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair said that while reliable internet access has always been important, the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated how great the need is in the community for improved broadband infrastructure.
“We learned during the pandemic when we were trying to do school and Zoom meetings or virtual meetings, that having that capacity in the internet was critical to our ability to educate our kids, do business, operate government and even just have parties with our families when we’re in isolation,” she said.
St. Clair said that improved internet access would give kids at all grade levels increased access to educational materials, level the playing field for local workers who need to work remotely or small business owners trying to grow their brands, and increase medical professionals’ capacity to provide virtual care and respond to emergencies.
The commissioner said the Port of Coupeville has been a critical player in advancing the broadband project to the point it has reached.
“I am extraordinarily grateful for the ongoing partnership of Port of Coupeville,” she said. “Their partnership has been absolutely essential to our success in moving forward.”
The Port of Coupeville was one of just 13 municipalities awarded a portion of the approximately $44.6 million granted in total by the Public Works Board. The broadband funds were highly coveted across the state; the board reported that applicants requested more than $90 million for 29 different projects.