Port gets $100K grant to improve broadband

Island County commissioners voted last week to approve Port of Coupeville’s application for funding.

The Port of Coupeville’s mission to bring reliable broadband internet to underserved areas of Island County got a $100,000 boost.

Island County commissioners voted last week to approve the port’s application for funding through the Rural County Economic Development Fund, which comes from a state sales tax rebate that’s meant to boost economic projects in rural counties.

Chris Michalopoulos, executive director of the port, explained during his presentation that the port’s plan is to seek federal and state grants, as well as private partnerships, to bring a fiber optics network to the county, especially in areas with slow or no connections.

“We are very underserved in many areas of Island County and that is very significant,” he said, pointing out that some students weren’t able to connect to Zoom for online classes and even the port’s office “barely” has dial-up internet access.

The pandemic showed the economic importance of reliable internet with so many people working from home, he said, but also the inequities created by broadband inaccessibility in areas such as education, health care and employment opportunities.

The port received a $50,000 grant from the state Community Economic Revitalization Board for a broadband feasibility study, which was completed last year. Island County, Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Whidbey Telecom contributed the necessary matching funds.

The port has also been working with regional partners on the project. Andrew Entrikin, the broadband manager for the Port of Skagit, spoke to the commissioners about the needs and opportunities.

He pointed out that the FCC broadband maps, which have been widely criticized for being inaccurate, show that 99 percent of county residents can get broadband. He said Microsoft has much more accurate maps that show 35,000 people in Island County don’t have access to broadband speeds.

Entrikin said there is big money in state and federal grants for broadband access coming down the pipe.

Past projects that have received Rural County Economic Development Funds include sewer expansions in different communities and the city of Oak Harbor’s purchase of a boatyard. The Port of Coupeville has received multiple grants in recent years to repair the Coupeville Wharf, replace a barn roof and restore a pond.

This year, the commissioners decided to focus the funding on projects related to broadband, which Commissioner Melanie Bacon said is a “huge priority” for the board. The only application they received was from the Port of Coupeville, which has been working on the issue for years.

Michalopoulos said the focus on broadband was a deliberate decision.

“We are pivoting from historic preservation to actually being an economic driver in our community,” he said.