Our Journey to Provide Local Broadband Access

Building Out the Newest Essential Utility: Franklin PUD’s Journey to Provide Local Broadband Access

Franklin Public Utility District, like many other public utilities, first started providing reliable broadband services in order to meet its own internal needs. There was a lack of broadband networks in many PUD service areas, and it was becoming a requirement for conducting business. This need is what drove many individual PUDs to build their own networks.

Franklin PUD’s broadband story begins in early 2000, when they, along with other PUDs, made the decision to form a nonprofit mutual corporation that would be called the Northwest Open Access Network, or NoaNet as it is known as today. The collective public utilities believed that investing in broadband services would help increase efficiencies within their own PUDs and allow them to provide broadband services at a reasonable cost where they did not exist. In addition, Franklin PUD believed it would:

• Promote economic development.

• Enhance the quality of education at all levels.

• Encourage other broadband service providers to enter this market.

• Enhance the livability of the community.

• Help promote NoaNet as a viable communications network.

By late 2000, Franklin PUD started developing a plan to build its own broadband network to be able to provide internal services; bridge the digital divide in Franklin County; and provide a reliable, cost-effective broadband solution for the community. An outside engineering firm was hired to develop a business plan/feasibility study and ultimately design, engineer, build, and help operate the network. A major change in the scope of the project occurred when those at a neighboring utility said they were seriously considering developing a communication network in conjunction with Franklin PUD. The project feasibility study then needed to consider joint development and sharing of facilities between the two companies. The study was completed in May 2001 and presented to both utilities. Ultimately, those at the other utility decided not to build their own network or participate in a joint development project. This prompted Franklin PUD to request a separate study that encompassed the Pasco area only, with the nearby and more rural cities of Connell and Kahlotus to be addressed at a later time. The results of the study indicated a strong demand for broadband services in the Pasco area and indicated a Pasco communications network was economically viable, paying for itself in about 13 years.

The initial network was a 50-mile fiber ring and a small colocation facility. Colocation facilities provide rack space, power, and connectivity to a business or organization that may not have their own facilities or budget to build one of their own. The fiber ring could serve up to 1 GB; serve time-division multiplexing services (generally used for phone services); and was geared toward anchor institutions such as the local school district, medical facilities, libraries, cities, law enforcement, and others.

As the years have progressed, the demand for broadband services has increased dramatically. Many view it as a necessity—an essential service. There are almost no businesses, schools, hospitals, or residences that do not have some type of broadband service that affects their daily lives or is critical to their operation. In keeping with the mission of serving the unserved and underserved, as well as being a good member of the community, Franklin PUD’s broadband has grown to accommodate this increased demand with investments in fiber; new, higher speed electronics; additional points of presence; and increased colocation space.

In 2011, in collaboration with NoaNet and with funding from the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program, Franklin PUD was able to extend their fiber-optic network to reach remote areas that were underserved or unserved in Franklin County, such as the cities of Connell, Kahlotus, and Basin City. Through this project, Franklin PUD was able to add nearly 63 miles of fiber to its existing network and lay the groundwork for future projects. Most importantly, this addition increased broadband service to schools, healthcare providers, and business owners that were operating with minimal broadband; for them, it was a game changer.

Today, Franklin PUD has over 350 miles of fiber-optic cable placed in Franklin County, which allows highspeed internet in the cities of Pasco, Kahlotus, Connell, Basin City, Mesa, and many other rural locations. This network is capable of speeds of 10 Gbps and can grow to 100 Gbps as needed. This fiber is still an open access network, and all services are wholesaled to Franklin PUD’s retail service providers (RSPs) that in turn package the services with other over-the-top products to provide a complete solution to the end user. Currently, Franklin PUD has 33 RSPs that offer a host of services, such as voice over Internet Protocol, internet, security, and many others.

Franklin PUD takes pride in being a good community partner and has worked with the City of Pasco and Franklin County to ensure all their locations are connected. Franklin PUD collaborated with a local RSP and the City of Pasco and they were able to provide free Wi-Fi to their downtown area. This helps the local farmers market vendors and customers and ultimately the local economy. Franklin PUD, along with a local RSP, was also able to help the City of Pasco bring broadband to many street light signal control cabinets, allowing for communication between street light signals for better traffic flow.

After receiving an inquiry from the City of Connell for assistance with broadband, the PUD and RSPs helped with the addition of Wi-Fi towers. The city had a single service provider that provided inadequate speeds at a fairly high cost. This provided a great opportunity to help the community. Together with the RSPs, Franklin PUD deployed a city-wide Wi-Fi network, now capable of more than 50 Mbps. By today’s standards, 50 Mbps may not seem fast, but for many of these community residents, it was 10 times more than what they had been able to receive and made a huge difference in their everyday lives. Franklin PUD is also proud to be the wholesale backbone provider for the Pasco, North Franklin, and Kahlotus school districts.

Through partnerships with RSPs, Franklin PUD’s wholesale broadband network serves most of the residents of Connell, enhances the lives of the Pasco community, and brings benefits to the very rural town of Kahlotus. The PUD’s network helps provide competitive broadband services to families, businesses, and organizations in these areas, giving them a choice and increasing the level of service they could get. Those at Franklin PUD understand that broadband is necessary for economic development, healthcare, and public safety; and they work hard to do their part. They are proud that their network gives customers more choices, more speed, and—most importantly—great community partnerships.

When COVID-19 brought its challenges, it really showcased the importance of broadband. During the COVID-19 crisis, not only were children attending school remotely, many of the parents were also working from home. This became a challenge, especially for those that had little to no broadband service. Franklin PUD and the RSPs were able to come together and provide free Wi-Fi hotspots to the community. Most of the hotspots were at and around local libraries and parks, so community members could have access to fast, reliable Wi-Fi services to complete homework, look for employment, and apply for assistance to help get them through the pandemic.

Another valuable service Franklin PUD provides is colocation facilities. Franklin PUD’s original colocation space was built in 2002-2003 to provide rack space, power, and broadband for small businesses and RSPs to rent in lieu of building their own facility. It was 315 square feet and had space for 20 seven-foot cages.

In late 2021, Franklin PUD began converting the lower level of their main administration building into new colocation suites that would allow businesses to customize a space specific to their needs and house servers, network equipment, back-up data storage, and other technology-based services. This also provides the opportunity for small, medium, or large businesses to expand. It gives them an affordable option rather than requiring large amounts of capital, which they may not have, on building out their own space.

The additional 4,500-square-foot colocation facility houses additional colocation space and customizable suites for use. The first two rooms that were recently completed are already 100% committed for.

“We hope the availability of this additional colocation space will attract telecommunication providers, tech companies, and businesses that offer IT services to our area,” said Ben Hooper, superintendent of metering, fleet, and broadband. “Reliable, low-cost broadband service is critical to our community. We at Franklin PUD are proud to provide these services to local hospitals, school districts, libraries, and other important community organizations.”

Franklin’s broadband team members are often seen as the local broadband experts and are called upon for their input in many projects. Their three-member team is small in number— but huge in heart! Combined, they have nearly 75 years of experience and knowledge they bring to the table every day. Their can-do attitude and willingness to think outside the box is what many community partners have come to rely on.

“Franklin PUD is the leader in broadband development throughout Franklin County. Working with their private RSP partners, Franklin PUD provides the customer service, technical expertise, and innovation that is a model for the whole state,” said Randy Hayden, executive director of the Port of Pasco.

Franklin PUD’s broadband department is managed by Hooper, who is a graduate of Washington State University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He received a master’s degree from Steven’s Institute of Technology in telecommunication management in 2003. His background includes working for GTE, Verizon, Ledcor, OneEighty Networks, and finally Franklin PUD in various positions all related to telecom. His vast knowledge and experience have been instrumental in the success of Franklin PUD’s broadband services.

Other team members, Brent Weatherman and Fred Wells, are both native Washingtonians, born and raised in Yakima. Weatherman worked in Delaware and Virginia before moving to the Tri-Cities in 2007. He worked in the telecom industry in some capacity for many companies before joining Franklin PUD in 2014. Wells also has vast telecom experience and has worked for many communication companies, helping with cell tower build outs throughout Washington and Oregon. He became part of the team in 2017.

So what are some of the challenges they see? Plain and simple, it’s competition. The need for increased bandwidth at the same or lower cost is one of the big issues. The other challenge is making sure everyone has adequate broadband service. Customer needs have expanded with advancing technology, and more is always expected. This is seen mostly in the PUD’s rural areas that have been neglected due to the cost of infrastructure. Going forward, Franklin PUD has plans to access grant money to begin expanding fiber into its more rural areas and increase wireless services as necessary to ensure all customers have access to reliable broadband.

“In today’s world, there is no economic development without broadband. For large and small business alike, companies expect robust broadband— just like they expect adequate roads, water, and sewer. And the employees needed to work at these businesses will demand broadband at their homes as well, for both remote work and personal use,” Hayden said.

Broadband is very different than traditional telecom; it is a true utility. In recent years, there has been a need for a huge increase in bandwidth requirements with the popularity of video streaming, gaming, social media, and cell phone usage. It is used in every facet of life now, including education, public safety, entertainment, shopping, medical, and a whole host of other fields. Everything we now do—doctor’s appointments, business, cell phones, grocery shopping, video chatting with our families and friends around the world, and all the rest—depends on the reliability of broadband.

Increasing demands on the reliability and speed are just a couple of the ongoing challenges Franklin PUD is experiencing. Customers’ needs and desires for more bandwidth became very apparent with the many shifts in our lives caused by COVID-19. Without a broadband connection, conducting business, working from home, and attending school remotely would not have been possible. Those at Franklin PUD have experienced cases where they get asked when broadband service will be restored before they get asked when power will be restored. This shows how dependent the world has become on reliable broadband service—a service the PUD originally started to just meet internal needs.

Franklin PUD Broadband will continue to keep a finger on the pulse of what the community needs. Like public power, broadband is now essential to our daily lives and business. Ultimately, the end user is looking for more bandwidth at a lower price. This requires utilities to be more competitive on price and adjust quickly to meet the changes in technology and demand. Technology is always changing and therefore the community needs change and additional services are sometimes required. Franklin PUD is up for the challenge!

Stacey Azure is the communications specialist at Franklin County PUD in Pasco, Washington. She can be reached at sazure@franklinpud.com or (509) 380-7125. For more information about Franklin PUD’s broadband services, including the colocation facilities, contact broadband@franklinpud.com.