Wahkiakum Company, Governments Offer Free Wi-Fi in Downtown Cathlamet | Local company

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 plug in his own connection.

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What started out as a service for itself and its neighbors, has grown from around five customers in 2018 to 200 today. His company added another office in Cathlamet in April and is working with local governments to bring free downtown wireless internet access 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 bridge the long-standing digital divide in rural Washington, highlighted during the pandemic’s addiction to work. at a distance and at school.

“It’s a utility”

When the internet goes down, everyday life can’t work, Carson said. Cathlamet restaurants cannot accept credit cards and local offices cannot answer phone calls that go through the connection.

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Cathlamet city councilor and mayor-elect David Olson said he didn’t know of any company that didn’t discuss the need for more reliable options in the city. He also couldn’t access high-speed internet for his consulting business when he moved to Cathlamet.

When the pandemic hit, the lack of internet access was magnified, he added. Olson said parents drive their children to local school parking lots to do homework online. He described internet access as a basic necessity.

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“It’s a utility,” he said. “It’s a service that everyone needs, like sewage and water. “

“Great palliative”

According to a 2020 survey by the Washington State Department of Commerce, the majority of Wahkiakum respondents said their internet download speed was 10 mbps or less, while the Federal Communications Commission considers 25 mbps. is the benchmark for high speed Internet downloads.

Carson’s company website, Skamokawa Internet Service, says it provides connections up to 50 Mbps in parts of Wahkiakum County. Skamokawa’s internet service uses a high frequency to transmit the internet wirelessly from a nonprofit’s local fiber optic connection to customers’ homes, Carson said.

He said microwave signals aren’t as fast as fiber, but wireless connections cost hundreds of thousands of dollars less than laying new fiber from the current backbone of the association right up to the customers’ doors.

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“In an area where people have nothing, it’s a great stopgap until we have fiber in every household,” he said.

Funding

Local public entities have tried to access grants to install stronger connections without success. Olson said local municipalities applied for a state broadband grant in 2020, but only received a loan that 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, free Wi-Fi connects the Skamokawa Internet Service office on Third Street to 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 city to cover the initial capital of the project. The Town of Cathlamet, Wahkiakum County Utilities District, Wahkiakum County Chamber of Commerce and Elochoman Slough Marina will pay for Skamokawa internet service to maintain functionality, while Olson said he expects the service to ultimately pay off. Carson said people who choose to use Wi-Fi for more than two hours can agree to pay for longer access.

The aim is not to replace internet providers in the area, he added, but to allow local residents and visitors to access the internet in the city to facilitate their visits. People may want to see a store’s hours of operation or a restaurant’s menu.

The service could also attract more tourists, which Olson says is a bigger local economic driver today than the logging or fishing industries of previous years. Visitors could use the internet to learn more about the historic Chinook tribe signs newly installed in the city, he added, or post a photo of the plaques on social media.

“It’s a convenience for visitors and locals,” he said, “for people moving from business to business, from downtown to the port.”