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KPUD in Washington State extending speedy fiber internet connections to homes

Residents of the Lookout Lane neighborhood in Poulsbo found themselves united three years ago by a common aggravation.

"Everyone was frustrated with CenturyLink," resident Rick Kriss recalled.

Because the neighborhood's internet hardware was obsolete, the telecommunications giant was providing customers a slow, 1 megabyte-per-second connection but still charging $60 a month for service, according to Kriss. With no alternatives available, Lookout Lane residents devised a plan to take control of their internet destiny.

The neighborhood worked with Kitsap Public Utility District to extend open-access fiber-optic connections to their homes and approved a local utility district to share the cost of construction.

Residents are now free to choose their internet providers and Kriss, who works in the tech industry, enjoys a speedy 1-gigabyte-per-second connection.

"It might be the fastest internet in North Kitsap," he said.

Other neighborhoods are following Lookout Lane's lead.

KPUD, which operates the county's "backbone" fiber infrastructure and sells wholesale access to internet providers, launched a project in 2015 to extend connections to individual homes. The "fiber-to-the-home" network is intended to serve rural areas that don't have broadband access and neighborhoods like Lookout Lane, where connections are inadequate or have been abandoned by service providers.

"We have pockets where we don't have service," said Angela Bennink of NoaNet, who will take over KPUD's telecom business operations in March.

KPUD opened an online portal allowing residents to register interest in extending the fiber network to their area.

"We got a lot of interest," Bennink said. "It gave us a great understanding of where there's a desire and a need."

Lookout Loop became the first neighborhood to create a local utility district and initiate a fiber-to-the-home project. Kriss said the cost of connecting worked out to about $10,000 to $14,000 per home — an investment he believes will add to his property value. Residents had the option of paying the cost upfront or in installments.

Forest Ridge Estates, which borders Lookout Lane to the east, has also formed a utility district and hooked up to fiber. Bennink said two other North Kitsap neighborhoods, one on Widme Road and one in the Eglon area, are interested in similar projects.

KPUD also plans to extend the county's fiber backbone into new areas over the next five years. Seabeck's Stavis Bay is first on the list.

New laws proposed

Bills winding their way through the Legislature this winter could further bolster broadband internet access in the county.

Senate Bill 6034, introduced by Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, would allow homeowners to petition to have KPUD become their Internet service provider if the service they're receiving from their commercial retailer doesn't meet quality standards or service is not being offered in their area. State law currently prohibits public utility districts from selling internet service directly to customers.

Bennink said the legislation would ensure that property owners who invest in connecting their homes to the fiber network will have access to the internet. It also gives internet service retailers incentive to provide a quality product.

The Senate passed SB 6034 on Monday, and the bill was referred to the House Technology & Economic Development Committee.

A bill introduced by Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, encourages broadband development in rural areas and includes a provision that would allow KPUD to provide broadband internet service to customers if petitioned. SB 5935 passed in the Senate Wednesday and has also moved to the House Technology & Economic Development Committee.

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