PUD-Summit Pacific seek grants to enhance rural fiber network

By David Haerle

The Daily World

In another effort to further span the “digital divide” plaguing rural areas on the Harbor, the Grays Harbor PUD and Summit Pacific Medical Center are seeking a pair of grants that could expand the utility telecommunications network in the East County and the telehealth capabilities of the hospital district.

The joint effort seeks a $1.5-million Public Works Board grant, so the PUD can continue its fiber-expansion efforts by bringing the utility fiber network into the communities of Cedarville, Porter, Malone and Oakville — areas that have been under-served for internet access for years. The most immediate benefit for the utility will be the connection of the Cedarville substation to the PUD fiber network, improving utility response time to outages and other service needs. A collateral impact of the expansion will be improved connections for area businesses, schools, farms, tribal community and emergency response systems.

“In the current circumstances, the need for a robust and extensive fiber network is more important than ever,” said PUD Core Services Director Rob Hanny, whose office oversees the PUD Telecommunications Department. “The combined efforts of the PUD and Summit Pacific have the potential to address several areas of need for this area.”

The expansion of the fiber network down the Chehalis River Valley will also be a major benefit to patients of Summit Pacific Medical Center, who are now able to request virtual healthcare visits if they aren’t wanting to go out in public. Summit Pacific is seeking a grant to expand their telehealth services and capabilities to better support those efforts.

“Summit Pacific aims to expand access to patients by enhancing our telemedicine infrastructure and capabilities through our partnership with the Grays Harbor Public Utility District. Summit patients live all over Grays Harbor — from McCleary to Westport. Some of them live in more remote areas such as Porter and Cedarville where internet access is less than ideal. We want patients to be able to have access to virtual health care across the county,” said Jennifer Brackeen, Summit Pacific’s Director of Care Innovation.

Ian Cope, the PUD’s director of communications, said while the grant — if secured — will provide the needed fiber-optic infrastructure, residents and businesses of the area will still need to purchase high-speed connectivity from one of the commercial internet service providers likely to piggyback their service on that future infrastructure.

“The utility doesn’t provide the retail service,” said Cope. “The issue we’re having (in rural areas of the county) is connectivity. The infrastructure just doesn’t go out that far. This will allow those companies to get to that community. That’s where the PUD comes in. We’re not driven by the bottom line and unlike those companies, we’re not driven by the return on investment” that can make these fiber network expansions prohibitive.

In January of 2019, Gov. Jay Inslee announced his “broadband for all” proposal, setting a goal for high-speed broadband connectivity to all of Washington state by 2028. He created a statewide broadband office, and the state construction budget passed by the Legislature included $21.5 million for rural broadband funding, about $7 million in grants and more than $14 million in loans.

The PUD’s efforts got a boost from that funding, already completeing a $450,000 state-funded expansion in another part of the East County, according to Cope. But the pandemic makes future state funding questionable. Thus the need for grants such as these.

“A strong fiber network is the key to economic development in this area, but with so much business and education being done from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes a vital need for the entire area,” added Hanny. “We’ve heard stories of residents having to drive into Elma, just to check email and send in homework assignments. If businesses can’t connect with customers and students can’t attend online classes, you can’t expect them to cope with this crisis.”

From Summit Pacific’s side of the matter, in early May, health care providers began seeing an alarming trend of people delaying care for injuries and worrisome symptoms — sometimes leading to hospitalizations that could have been avoided with earlier care. The reasons for delaying care include concerns about a higher risk for COVID-19 infection and worries that healthcare teams were too busy for them.

“What we don’t want to see is patients putting off their routine healthcare visits and putting themselves at increased risk of health crisis. While we have taken extra precautions to ensure the safety of our patients, we understand their concerns,” stated Brackeen. “The combination of improving broadband access and mobile hot spots with increased access to care.”