CATHLAMET — When Steve Carson moved from Vancouver to Skamokawa about three years ago, he said he couldn’t access reliable high-speed internet through a local provider.
So, he decided to hook up his own connection.
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What started as a service for himself and neighbors, grew from about five customers in 2018 to 200 today. His company added another office in Cathlamet in April, and is working with the local governments to bring free wireless internet downtown and high-speed fiber optic connections to Wahkiakum County.
In an area with few internet service providers and reliable fast connections, private and public entities are working together to close rural Washington’s longtime digital divide, highlighted during the pandemic’s reliance on remote work and school.
‘It’s a utility’
When the internet fails, everyday life can’t function, Carson said. Cathlamet restaurants can’t take credit cards, and local offices can’t answer phone calls that run over the connection.
Cathlamet Town Councilman and Mayor-Elect David Olson said he doesn’t know any business that doesn’t discuss wanting more reliable options in town. He also couldn’t access high-speed internet for his consulting business when he relocated to Cathlamet.
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When the pandemic hit, the lack of internet access was magnified, he added. Olson said parents drove their kids to local school parking lots to do online assignments. He described internet access as a basic necessity.
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“It’s a utility,” he said. “It’s a service everyone needs to have like sewer and water.”
According to a 2020 survey by the Washington State Department of Commerce, the majority of Wahkiakum respondents said their internet download speeds were 10 mbps or under, while the Federal Communications Commission considers 25 mbps to be the benchmark for high-speed internet downloads.
The website for Carson’s business, Skamokawa Internet Service, says it delivers connections up to 50 mbps in some parts of Wahkiakum County. Skamokawa Internet Service uses a high-frequency to transmit wireless internet from a nonprofit’s local fiber-optic connection to customers’ homes, Carson said.
He said the microwaved signals aren’t as fast as fiber, but the wireless connections are hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper than laying new fiber from the nonprofit’s current backbone to customers’ doorsteps.
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“In an area where people have nothing, this is a great stopgap until we get fiber to every home,” he said.
Local public entities have tried to access grants to install stronger connections without luck. Olson said local municipalities applied for a state broadband grant in 2020, but were only offered a loan the small organizations had to turn down.
Until a stronger connection can be installed, local municipalities are teaming up to provide free Wi-Fi in downtown Cathlamet using Carson’s service.
Today, the free Wi-Fi runs from Skamokawa Internet Service’s office on Third Street to the Elochoman Slough Marina, with plans in 2022 to reach River Street and Main Street.
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Olson said Wahkiakum County allocated $12,000 in federal COVID-relief funds to the town to cover the project’s initial capital. The town of Cathlamet, Wahkiakum County Public Utility District, Wahkiakum County Chamber of Commerce and Elochoman Slough Marina will pay Skamokawa Internet Service to maintain the feature, while Olson said he expects the service to eventually pay for itself. Carson said people who choose to use the Wi-Fi for longer than two hours can agree to pay for longer access.
The goal isn’t to replace the area’s internet service providers, he added, but to allow local residents and visitors internet access while in town to make their visits easier. People might want to look up a store’s hours or restaurant’s menu.
The service also could attract more tourism, which Olson said is a larger local economic driver today than previous years’ logging or fishing industries. Visitors could use the internet to learn about the town’s newly installed Chinook tribe historical signs, he added, or post a photo of the plaques on social media.
“It’s an amenity for visitors and locals,” he said, “for people moving from business to business, from downtown to the port.”