A fiber future: Faster connection speeds a gateway to economic success, experts say

Fast or slow Internet speeds can be a deal breaker for South Whidbey real estate agents.

Jeff Baesler

Jeff Baesler

Fast or slow Internet speeds can be a deal breaker for South Whidbey real estate agents. Candace Jordan with John L. Scott in Langley estimated that 90 percent of her customers inquire about Internet speed, a testament to the pull web speeds have with people looking to buy on South Whidbey. They’ll have something to boast about in the coming months as Whidbey Telecom works to create one of the fastest Internet infrastructures in the nation to be used by residents, businesses and government.

“When we’re able to tell them we have fiber optics throughout the South End, that’s huge,” Jordan said. “If you can be a fast Internet and WiFi area, that is a lot to be bragging about.”

The hope for the fiber, Whidbey Telecom Co-CEO George Henny said, is to leapfrog other cities and give superior speed and service. The utility provider plans to offer 1 gigabit for both upload and download for its customers, while 10 gigabits will be available for customers in designated “green zones,” which encompass large areas of service in Langley, Clinton, Bayview and Freeland. Henny said the fiber has the capacity to handle 100 gigabits per second in the future, which would make it 10 times faster than some of the nation’s leaders in Internet speed. The bandwidth could potentially impact the speed in which businesses, telecommuters and others can operate, such as when uploading and downloading large video files from the web.

The project will span multiple years while the investment is expected to top $10 million. According to officials from Island County, Clinton, the Port of South Whidbey, Seattle, Clallam County and Cedar Falls, Iowa, it will be money well spent.

A boost for the South End

For Clinton, fiber could be a significant step in the right direction for boosting economic vitality. By providing stronger and more reliable Internet, businesses are more likely to set up shop, according to Clinton Chamber of Commerce President Stephanie Cook. It will also help those that already strongly utilize the Internet. Around 15 percent of businesses in Clinton are telecommuting-based or rely solely on computers and other technologies, said Cook, and would be the beneficiaries of the quicker connection speeds. Cook added that at least 75 percent of businesses also use Internet on a regular basis, including her restaurant and lounge, Cozy’s Roadhouse.

“I think it will be a good draw for new businesses opening up; more tech savvy businesses and people that want the island life and can work from home,” Cook said.

A survey conducted by the Port of South Whidbey also showed a number of residents rely on Internet while working from home or telecommuting. Port Commissioner Curt Gordon said there has been ample discussion that Clinton stands to benefit from the fiber due to an existing VSDL (very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line), which allow for download speeds 50 megabits per second and upload speeds of 20 megabits per second.

“But with fiber, they could go to a 100 (gigabits),” Gordon said.

The fiber also fits into the Island County Economic Council’s longterm strategy for providing a sustainable environment for attracting and boosting business, Executive Director Ron Nelson said. He could hardly contain his excitement about its potential. Though Nelson couldn’t pinpoint which areas needed the Internet more than others, the fiber could act as a selling point for businesses to thrive.

“We are thrilled to death. I can’t put it into words strong enough,” Nelson said. “It provides us another incentive in our toolkit in trying to grow or attract businesses.”

Nelson added that infrastructure is critical to a strong economic environment. He said that while South Whidbey lacks a salt water port, an I-5 corridor and a large regional airport, it could make up for it in having strong bandwidth services.

Rates unknown

Henny and Chief Operating Officer Chris Burns said rates for the increased bandwidth are still being determined. Burns said that Whidbey Telecom is analyzing the national market and will adjust accordingly. Customer expectations will also be a factor in the eventual determination and that feedback from businesses and residents will be taken into account.

“The fact is that were committed to providing outstanding service at a fair and reasonable price that is both very attractive and very competitive,” Henny said.

“We’re molding the clay right now,” Burns added.

As a for-profit business and a rural regulated utility, there are several sources that make the company financially whole. The company’s services and rates pay for its investments, while other funding comes from a national subsidy program by the Federal Communications Commission, state and local monies.

“The better we do, the more we’ll be able to invest in the network,” Burns said. “How the customers respond to this first offering will be one of the driving factors.”

Impacts in Wash.

From the density of Seattle’s metropolitan area to the rural areas of the northwestern tip of Washington, fiber optic cabling is being utilized. The reasons are often multi-purpose, ranging from businesses wanting to stay competitive with faster Internet services to filling a void in a broadband infrastructure. While South Whidbey isn’t without fiber optics — some were installed in Freeland’s commercial core two years ago — much of the South End is still on the waiting list.

But when it does arrive, will it do all that supporters hope?

A feasibility study conducted by the Western Olympic Technology Planning Team in an effort to facilitate broadband expansion in Clallam and Jefferson counties showed that a lack of high-speed internet sets communities at a disadvantage, said Clea Rome a member of the team and director of the Washington State University Clallam County Extension. Rome said the study was essentially a business case for the importance of bringing high-speed Internet to areas that lack strong broadband infrastructure. The positives, which were most evident in the medical, education and government sectors, were undeniable, she said. She also equated Internet speeds to being as essential as electricity was in the dawn of that technology.

“Without question it’s impacted people’s abilities to develop their businesses,” Rome said. “It’s just pervasive.”

Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities based out of Washington D.C., said in an email that fiber optics are a necessity. Her organization is committed to helping communities obtain modern broadband service through municipal service or help drive competition.

Socia said Whidbey Telecom’s 10 gigabit per second speed will rival other leaders in the Internet race like Chattanooga, Tenn. and Salisbury, N.C.

“It impacts cities and their citizens is so many ways — education, tourism, public safety, transportation, citizen engagement, healthcare, tele-commuting and economic development,” Socia said. “Even real estate prices are impacted.”

Jason Joiner of Windermere in Coupeville echoed Jordan’s sentiments in that Internet speeds are often a hot topic. He couldn’t say whether the rate of inquiries on Internet speeds were as high as Jordan’s, but that it is often crucial.

“It definitely can be the point that doesn’t sell the home,” Joiner said.

Joiner said Whidbey Telecom’s efforts will help improve options for people who tele-commute and work from home, as a high volume of South Whidbey residents work at Boeing in Everett.

A gigabit city?

If Cedar Falls, Iowa is any kind of case study for the positives of fiber optic cables, South Whidbey may see a boost in business down the road.

Cedar Falls, also known as “gigabit city,” was commended by President Barack Obama in 2015 at a speech in the city’s utility garage for providing one of the fastest Internet speeds in the country. Although Henny said he couldn’t quantify the tangible impacts of the fiber optics installed in Freeland, one Cedar Falls official said the effects in his area are clear.

Bob Seymour, economic development manager for Cedar Falls, said in the time since the fiber optics were first installed in the city in April 2013, Cedar Falls has been showered in dividends on multiple fronts.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Seymour said in a phone interview. “It’s been a tremendous help.”

Seymour said the major positives have been twofold. For one, the city can be more competitive and inviting for technology and healthcare companies looking to set up shop where the Internet is fast and fits their needs. Secondly, existing businesses have no reason to look elsewhere.

Michael Mattmiller, chief technology officer for the city of Seattle, said that while he didn’t know if fiber optic cabling has attracted new business, he has seen a sense of urgency in providing businesses the ability to innovate.

“When we think about the explosion of the Internet effecting our lives, whether that’s Internet service that we take at our homes or at work, or just use with our cell phones, we need more fiber optic cabling to carry all that traffic,” Mattmiller said. “As the leading technology in the city, we need to make sure that our companies have access to the fastest broadband possible so that the actual capacity of our connection is not a barrier to innovation.”

Mattmiller said the city utilizes commercial carriers CenturyLink, Comcast and Wave Broadband to increase fiber optic usage in Seattle. Those providers offer Internet service of 1 gigabit per second, as does Cedar Falls.

Seymour said Internet speeds have come to the forefront of what businesses look for in a city, which include quality of life, affordable housing and low taxes. The viability of the fiber optics and subsequent attraction of new businesses and residents depends on a long-term goal, and whether that goal is tailored toward residents or to drive business, Seymour said.

“For us, it was economic development purposes along with providing existing businesses with the needs that they need and depend on,” Seymour said. “You have to make the correlation from housing and population growth that are tied to those companies.”


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