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Cities, county developing high-tech ‘backbone’

City and county leaders view the public installation of a fiber-optic cable across the Kitsap Peninsula as another step toward economic independence from their neighbors across Puget Sound.

By mid-summer, Kitsap Public Utility District No. 1 — which traditionally has purveyed water to some 9,000 north end customers — will have strung fiber optics from the south end of the county all the way to Poulsbo and Kingston, with possible future links to Port Orchard and Bainbridge Island.

The result will be a high-speed telecommunications highway in Kitsap which, if properly tapped, could attract technical businesses and ac-commodate telecommuters — those who use the phone to commute to work rather than car or ferry.

The Kitsap Peninsula, whose geography can create economic liabilities, could get connected to the rest of the Puget Sound, state and world by way of this so-called fiber optic backbone, a seemingly bottomless well of Internet capabilities.

But the connections to the backbone have to be installed first.

“(The fiber-optic backbone) is like a four-lane Interstate 5 with no on-ramps or off-ramps,” said Ed Stern, a Poulsbo City Councilman and Economic Development Council member. “What good is a huge pipeline if there are no spigots.”

Under the auspices of the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council (KRCC), the cities and county are partnering to figure out how they can bring the fiber-optic backbone the “last mile home.”

“It’s gotten to the point where we need to be building backbones and not necessarily brick and mortar,” said Kitsap County Commission Jan Angel. “People could work out of their homes and still bring in income. We shouldn’t be exporting folks to Seattle.”

County Commissioner Chris Endresen, who is also an active member of the Economic Development Council, said the fiber-optic backbone is a “huge opportunity.

“Telecommunications is vital to our economic diversification in Kitsap,” Endresen said. “It’s the fourth utility along with electricity, water and sewer.”

Endresen said elected officials and the KRCC are brainstorming to figure out ways to provide open access to residents and businesses at affordable prices.

Currently KRCC members are talking with members of the University of Washington Internet Studies Department to determine whether they should partner up to conduct a study on a public sector solution to linking Kitsap residents to the backbone.

Meanwhile, members of the Kitsap Regional Economic Development Council, of which Stern is a member, are researching ways in which the private sector can also provide those solutions.

“If the private sector stepped up, that would be preferable,” Endresen said.

“There is no preferred option right now,” County Commissioner Tim Botkin said. “Pretty clearly, if there is a private sector option, that’s the place we want to look.”

The fiber-optic cable installation currently underway in Kitsap is a roughly $4.5 million project funded and administered by the Kitsap public utility, for Phase I (the backbone itself), then a series of loops in central and northern Kitsap and later possible links to Bainbridge Island and Port Orchard.

The Kitsap backbone will simply add another branch to a public telecommunication web installed by the Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), which is a non-profit group of mostly electrical public utility districts throughout the state.

Founded two years ago, NoaNet was designed to help its founding utilities monitor their own substations, just as the Bonneville Power Administration made a switch to fiber-optic technology as a more efficient, reliable way to monitor its own gargantuan electrical grid and substations.

That grid stretches across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, the northern tip of California and parts of Wyoming.

Ultimately NoaNet members ended up leasing public purpose fibers for their own monitoring purposes on the growing Bonneville grid because the BPA ended up with excess fiber capacity.

That excess capacity has benefitted rural counties where larger phone companies don’t have as big a presence.

NoaNet is currently active in Oregon and Washington.

Also two years ago, the state legislature approved a law limiting public utility districts and rural port districts to the wholesale telecommunications side of the business. Access to the fiber optic backbone being installed by the Kitsap PUD, in other words, is available only on the wholesale market.

Bit the law is silent about the roles of cities and counties.

“We need to have ways for it to be available at affordable prices,” said Endresen. “We are being proactive.”

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