Public Utility District #1 of Whatcom County (PUD) and the Port of Bellingham, in partnership with Whatcom County, have secured over $10 million during the past year to address one of Whatcom County’s biggest economic development and infrastructure challenges, access to high-speed internet.

Most recently, the Port received a $4 million grant from the Washington State Broadband Office and a $1 million grant from Whatcom County’s Economic Development Investment Program to extend 30 miles of open access fiber to 1,100 underserved homes and businesses north of Ferndale. The Port will lease the publicly owned infrastructure to internet service providers competing to provide affordable, high quality services.

Whatcom PUD was awarded a $50,000 grant for a Broadband Mapping and Feasibility Study. This project consists of a feasibility study to assess the potential to bring highspeed broadband to Whatcom County.  CERB funds were matched by $12,500 in local resources.

“Providing affordable broadband access is extremely important” said Port Commissioner Michael Shepard. “These grant dollars are going straight into our local economy and will ensure more families can access the internet.”

The north Ferndale project is one of three fully-funded Port fiber projects expected to be under construction by early next year. A project on East Nooksack/North Mosquito Lake Road will extend broadband to 464 unserved homes and businesses, and a north Lynden project will provide access to an additional 450 homes and businesses.

“This is great news!” said Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu. “Today high-speed internet is essential to find work and pursue entrepreneurial opportunities as well as to access education and health care. Unfortunately, the private sector has not been able to extend broadband infrastructure to many rural areas in our community. Whatcom County is committed to working with local, state and federal partners to deliver equal access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to all members of our community.”

PUD Commissioner Christine Grant said “These grants will fund fiber broadband connections to address our community’s rapidly increasing bandwidth needs. These grant wins are a great start—and we will continue applying for state and federal broadband grants to help fund the continued expansion of this critical infrastructure.”

The Port and PUD, both having the authority to build broadband networks and provide broadband services, are working together to extend open access fiber to unserved and underserved areas of Whatcom County. In 2019 the Port published a Feasibility Study in partnership with PUD evaluating the need for broadband access in rural areas of Whatcom County. In 2021, the Port was awarded a grant through the Washington State Department of Commerce Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) to extend broadband to the rural area of North Lynden.

“CERB provides funding to local governments and federally recognized Indian tribes for public infrastructure supporting private business growth and expansion” said CERB Executive Director Janea Delk. “Connecting homes and businesses in Whatcom County to high speed broadband will create jobs and support businesses in local, regional and global markets.”

CERB has been instrumental in efforts to close the digital divide in Whatcom County, so far contributing over $3 million in grants and low-interest loans to support the mapping, planning and construction of high-speed broadband.

The Port and PUD continue to work collaboratively on policy, strategies and funding opportunities through a Broadband Steering Committee.  For the initial phase of Whatcom County’s open access broadband network, the Port has partnered with local internet service provider PogoZone for support with the installation and maintenance of new fiber infrastructure.

“PogoZone is focused on bridging the digital divide for businesses and residences in under-served areas of Whatcom County” said PogoZone Principal Tim Dyck. “We are thrilled to be partnering with the Port of Bellingham on our shared mission of providing all areas of Whatcom County with high speed internet access.”

Port Broadband Manager Gina Stark added “The Port’s mission is to promote sustainable economic development.  Fast, reliable and affordable internet connections are essential for Whatcom County’s business community, and the Port, PUD and Whatcom County are committed to meeting the long-term infrastructure and economic development needs of our community.”

The Pew Research Center estimates a quarter of rural Americans still lack adequate, affordable broadband internet access. In Whatcom County, many homes and businesses are miles away from the critical infrastructure needed to expand broadband services. To improve digital equity, state and federal lawmakers have set aside billions in grant funding as part of pandemic relief efforts to improve broadband connectivity and infrastructure. Strong local government partnerships and early recognition of the connection between rural economic development and high-speed internet access has helped the Port secure large amounts of grant funding for Whatcom County.