A law signed by Gov. Jay Inslee will allow the Port of Ridgefield to begin work on a 42-mile dark fiber network
RIDGEFIELD — Dark Fiber is coming to the Ridgefield area. No, that’s not something from an episode of “Black Mirror,’’ but it should eventually allow people who live in Clark County’s Discovery Corridor to soon stream their favorite Netflix shows a lot faster.
What exactly is Dark Fiber? It’s basically just fiber optic cables, without any information lighting them up yet. The idea behind such a system is that a public entity builds it, and then service providers lease one or more strands of fiber.
“Very similar to if we were building a water system,” says Nelson Holmberg, vice president of innovation with the Port of Ridgefield, “We would build the pipe, and then we would employ the private sector to come in and put a pump on one end, a faucet on the other, and then run their water through it to serve their customers.”
Late last week Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law passed by the legislature, expanding the number of local municipalities that can build their own dark fiber networks.
“While we were working on changing the law, we also were working on a plan for a 42-mile backbone loop around the Discovery Corridor,” Holmberg tells Clark County Today. “That sets us up nicely, because right now we’re shovel ready, and now that we’ve got the law changed we can go to bid.”
Holmberg says when he first started at the port in 2015, one of the first things they did was take a field trip to Pullman. Whitman County has been one of the leaders in building out their own dark fiber.
“When we pulled into downtown Pullman,” he recalls, “our iPhones worked the way they’re advertised to work.”
The Port of Whitman County actually starting laying their fiber lines over a decade ago.
“(They have) just over 300 linear miles of fiber optic infrastructure in the ground today,” Holmberg says. “Also dark, also open access, just like we’re going to do. And they have fourteen private companies lighting that fiber, serving eastern Washington.”
The goal of a system like that is to increase competition, thus improving service and bringing down prices.
“Open access means anybody can lease fiber from us,” says Holmberg. “It can not be a ‘one company takes it all’ type of situation.”
That’s good news for the people who live in Ridgefield, who’ll likely have access to gigabit speed Internet and better within the next year or two, but it’s potentially great news for bringing high tech businesses to the region.
“One of the things we consistently hear,” Holmberg says, “is, ‘you’ve done a great job with infrastructure. Transportation, water, utilities, all of it. But where’s the broadband? We don’t have the kind of access to broadband we need at the prices we need to be paying.'”
With Clark College set to begin construction on the first building on their Boschma Farms campus at The Junction within the next year, and PeaceHealth Southwest set to build a campus in the area sometime soon, Holmberg is hopeful other businesses will see the region as a potential landing spot with a high quality workforce built in.
The Dark Fiber network will also be extended to connect with the WSU Vancouver campus, opening new research opportunities for the University, and potentially bringing in new programs and different kinds of students in the area that businesses would find attractive.
As for who will ultimately light up those dark fibers with Internet service, Holmberg says he’s had numerous conversations with CenturyLink, Comcast, and other big names.
“I’ve even had one conversation with a local gentleman who’s interested in potentially opening up a local ISP, and leasing fiber to do that,” he says.
The law signed by the governor has a 90-day waiting period, but Holmberg says they’re ready to start bidding out the project the moment that moratorium expires. He’s actually been contacted by several fiber optic installers interested in being part of the project.
The Port has close to a million dollars set aside in their capital fund to begin build out this year. Whatever they can’t get done with that will have to wait for another $1.5 million to become available over the next four years. But Holmberg is optimistic this 42-mile loop will be just the start.
“We’ll reinvest that revenue back into the system and continue to not only maintain it,” he says, “but also add to the system.”
A fiber optic wire is made up of strands. Each strand is capable of carrying pretty amazing amounts of data. Just how much depends a lot on math, and scientists constantly seem to be pushing the theoretical limits. Holmberg says they’re looking to the future with the capacity of this system.
“A minimum of 144 (strands),” he says. “I’m shooting for more like 288, because I like to think about what the need might be 10-15 years down the road.”
Given the pace of technology, that’s hard to imagine. What isn’t hard to imagine is lots of companies taking a long hard look at the Discovery Corridor in a few years, given the high speed data that will be available, and hopefully a lack of tolls on I-5 north of Portland.