The plan is slated to be completed by the end of 2021. The implementation is uncertain.

The Pierce County Council received the results of a study evaluating broadband access and speed in the county last spring concluding that no solutions to inadequate access to high speed internet would come from the private sector alone.

In March 2018, the council hired Denver firm Magellan Advisors to conduct an audit to inventory current infrastructure, identify strategies to increase broadband access and speed in rural areas, and explore ways to increase and expand broadband infrastructure. The audit methodology included outreach to residents, businesses, service providers, utilities and county departments. A survey, primarily of households, included more than 1,200 responses.

The executive summary stated: “Gaps exist due to nonaggregated markets, and existing internet service providers have not committed to addressing these gaps without significant incentives; basic economics keeps broadband out of many of the county’s rural areas. The starting point is for Pierce County’s leaders to decide that lack of broadband is more than a problem: It is a critical roadblock to solutions for numerous problems.”

The report summarized three approaches: rely on the private sector, have the county become an infrastructure provider, or consider a hybrid public-private partnership model.

In July 2019, the council passed a resolution that declared broadband to be essential infrastructure and defined three steps to make that a reality. The first was to remove policies and codes that are barriers to providing broadband services.

“We currently are under contract with CBG Communications to deliver the first component of the resolution. That work will kick off in February 2020, and we expect to have the deliverables within three to four months,” said Senior Legislative Analyst Hugh Taylor. “We are trying to make sure the county isn’t standing in the way of the private sector doing their business.”

Second, the council will hire a project manager or facilitator. County Councilman Derek Young said that person will be tasked with planning, identifying funding, and implementation of building the “middle mile” — the backbone of a broadband network in the county. “The goal will be to serve as many as possible as quickly as possible,” he said. Two firms are being considered and a contract should be in place by early 2020.

“Leaders need to decide that lack of broadband is more than a problem: it is a critical roadblock.”

Finally, the council will establish a stakeholder group. Taylor said there may be two groups — one that is a technical advisory group with expertise in providing broadband, and a second that would include representatives from the community, institutional groups (such as education and health care), telecommunications companies, and local and county government.

“We envision that it could take through the end of 2021 before we have a plan in place. And that works well with the two-year budget process,” Taylor said. “I don’t want to upsell the delivery of a brand new fiber optic service in the community…It is a very complicated issue that is primarily driven by the marketplace right now and the county isn’t in the broadband business.”

Young said that Pierce County presents some unique challenges. Nearly all other counties in the state have one or just a few utility providers for electricity, water and sewer. In Pierce County there are multiple utility providers, each with its own easement issues, which can make coordinating a broadband infrastructure, and even deciding who owns or runs it, complicated.

Broadband, which refers to high-speed internet services, is defined both by width and speed. Width refers to capacity — how much data can be carried. Speed is about how fast the signal moves. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream (what is received) and 3 Mbps upstream (what is sent). 

Speed of data transmission is typically expressed as the number of thousand (K), million (M) or billion (G) bits transmitted per second: 20 Mbps stands for 20 megabits per second. A bit is the smallest size of data storage; a byte, the unit used in file sizes, contains eight bits. Data transfer will not exceed the speed in a consumer’s plan, but it may be slower depending on internet traffic, physical distance from the nearest network connection and several other factors.

The technology to carry information has evolved. Legacy dial-up telephone wires can handle speeds up to 56 Kbps. Digital subscriber lines (DSL) offer speeds of 10 to 24 Mbps, and copper-based cable can increase the speed to 150 Mbps. But signals in copper wire degrade over distance and are susceptible to electrical interference. Cable TV companies sharing those lines with multiple users will also reduce speed.

Fiber optic cable is considered the backbone of broadband networks. Fiber optic uses strands of glass to carry data via light waves and it has nearly unlimited capacity with speeds in the Gbps range (a billion bits per second), far surpassing copper.

Wireless or cellular technology uses radio waves to transmit data, requiring cell towers and antennae rather than wires. 4G cellular networks typically operate in the Kbps rather than Mbps range. 5G networks, or fifth generation technology, use higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths and are expected to provide speeds in the Gbps range. But the shorter wavelengths require antennae placed close together and in line of sight, and can be affected by environmental conditions. Those limitations mean that the new technology will probably not close the rural-urban broadband divide anytime soon.