Aging infrastructure is maxed out in Key Peninsula neighborhoods where residents are on waiting lists to connect to high speed internet service — or service of any kind.
After KPC Director Cindy Worden watched her internet speed plummet from 10 Mbps to 1 Mbps, she spent hours on the telephone determined to find answers. A line had been moved to make way for culvert replacement along State Route 302 over Minter Creek, effectively moving her from the beginning of the line to the end, reducing her speed to a trickle.
Lucky for her, it was a temporary and resolvable issue, but she invited CenturyLink to speak at a KP Community Council meeting Nov. 13 to explain why others might not be so fortunate.
Christopher Black, manager of local network implementation engineering and construction for CenturyLink, addressed a full house at the monthly meeting of the council held at the Key Center Fire Station. He spoke candidly about the realities of bringing high-speed internet to rural communities like the Key Peninsula.
KPC Director Irene Torres said she saw complaints from local residents posted on Facebook that CenturyLink has reached full capacity on the KP to deliver high speed internet hookups. She asked Black what the company is doing for residents who need service, and said, “Kids can’t do their homework without it.”
“I understand it and hear it just about everywhere I go,” Black said. “I think what you’re being told is based on the copper platform that we have out on the field today. We are not investing in expanding that copper platform. We want to build fiber optic, that’s the way to go.”
Black explained that the aging copper phone lines limit CenturyLink’s footprint. “I can bring fiber optics to the neighborhood –– those big boxes you see on the side of the road –– and from there it’s one mile in circumference around that box,” he said. “Around here it might be 20 houses. In Seattle or Tacoma there could be a million people in that 1 mile and that is a good payback for us.”
“When funds aren’t there, projects don’t happen.”
Black said there are potentially some state funds available through the Community Economic Revitalization Board or through the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF), based on census blocks and any existing coverage available — such as cell phones with 4G — that funds approximately 40 percent of the expense for rural areas.
The FCC mandates where those CAF projects are located. To illustrate the costs, Black described how he used a federally funded project to take broadband to 400 residents who live on Neah Bay.
“We had to run a 17-mile fiber optic cable to get there. I was in charge of construction at that time and we spent $4 million. We ended up with about 200 customers and the federal government paid us back a little bit of money, but we’ll never see the light of day. The Indian Tribes have…the ear of our local and state government, and that goes a long way.”
Black said that $500 million funds operations for all eight states in CenturyLink’s western region.
“To you and me, it sounds like a great deal of money, but when you consider we spent $4 million just to get to Neah Bay, $500 million doesn’t get you very far,” he said. “Since cell phones came about, we’ve lost nearly 75 percent of our business. Bankers and stockholders expect a return on investment.”
Black said there is a national formula on what it costs for telecommunications companies to connect rural neighborhoods and sell high speed internet. That formula is an 8-year payback at an 18 percent take rate.
“If we want to invest $100,000 to bring internet out to a neighborhood, based on an 18 percent take rate, over the course of eight years –– let’s say that number is only $50,000. The other 50 percent has to come from homeowners,” he said. “There is no other funding available.”
Black said CenturyLink is willing to partner with their competition and is always looking for ways to bring service out, something that never would have happened with the old phone companies. With competitors working together, both companies can go twice as far as long as everyone makes their 18 percent margin.
On average, in a neighborhood with buried electricity, Black said it costs roughly $50 a foot — a considerable investment per mile. It’s pennies per foot for fiber optic cable versus copper, but the larger costs involve labor, permitting and construction.
“We will also partner with homeowners. If there is a lot of interest in getting high speed internet service we will take a look, come up with a price, and we will ask for an aid to construction,” he said.
Telecommunications companies are regulated by the FCC and cannot deny service if service is available, Black said.
KPC Director Bob Anderson said, “What I heard you say is that Neah Bay was successful because of political pressure. My question to you is who in the state of Washington is providing political pressure for rural areas?”
“That would be you,” Black said. “It’s the individual city and town councils, your state representatives who work for you.”
KPC Director Chuck West asked Black about the recent repairs to the substation at the corner of 64th and Key Peninsula Highway NW, property West owns where CenturyLink had to replace the electrical, saying it was his understanding “it was an equipment issue slowing things down, not necessarily the pipe.”
“It’s a little bit of both,” Black said, “but there is resistance in everything.”
Electric cable has more resistance than fiber optic, so with both parts of that it ends up slowing the system down, he said. With the older copper system there is more resistance the thinner the wire is.
“Just like your extension cord at home, the longer the cord, the less the power you get at the end of it,” Black said.
“My expense budget is small, and just like your budget at home, we’re putting things off,” he said. “When funds aren’t there, projects don’t happen. We’re pretty much to the point where the bandage is falling off… it needs to be replaced.”