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KRCC votes to fund Internet study

City, county and tribal officials took the first formal baby step last week toward providing equal access to what is considered the fourth utility — broadband telecommunications — to Kitsap residents.

“I am really excited about this,” said Kitsap County Commissioner Chris Endresen. “Government works best when we work together, and that’s what I see. I see all of these entities working toward the goal of clean economic development.”

On Tuesday, the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council’s policy board, to which has mayors, county commissioners and tribal appointees as members, decided to ask its respective member jurisdictions to fork over a combined $25,000 to explore how to link Kitsap residents to Internet broadband capabilities.

The exploratory fund, in turn, would pay third-party, unbiased policy experts and legal advisors to research and develop a set of parameters by which county jurisdictions can figure out over the next year what role, if any, they can play in providing a “last-mile solution” to broadband access.

The exploration is an overall effort to develop connections to Kitsap Public Utility District No. 1’s fiber-optic backbone project.

By mid-summer, the traditional water purveyor will have strung the backbone from South Kitsap to North Kitsap, with possible future lines to Port Orchard and Bainbridge Island.

Under state law, the PUD is limited to the wholesale side of the business.

The $4.5 million project is expected to make Kitsap more competitive and economically independent from its bigger, more entrenched Puget Sound neighbors.

The trick is to hook up Kitsap businesses and residents to the cable once it’s completely installed this summer. The KRCC group wants to make sure that happens.

And while the public sector, under the auspices of the KRCC, is working toward figuring out how to make those connections, a parallel, private sector effort is underway with help from the Kitsap Regional Economic Development Council.

The KRCC recommendation asks the cities and county to each pitch in about $4,500 for the exploratory effort and the tribes are being asked to contributed about $2,000.

The contributions are subject to approval by city councils, the county commissioners and the tribes themselves.

But if approved, $15,000 of that fund would pay the University of Washington Center for Internet Studies for 80 hours of research and brainstorming activities.

The co-director of the world-renowned university department, Rex Hughes, says the two-weeks worth of work the center can perform would gather enough information to set up a working document from which the county entities can work.

The idea is to prepare for a work-study session, to include interested city, county and tribal leaders from across Kitsap, in a few months.

The Seattle law firm of Ogden Murphy Wallace would also be compensated to make sure any work accomplished falls within state and federal legal parameters.

The remainder of the exploratory fund would compensate KRCC staff members for their time and organizational expertise — work that would be accomplished outside of their normal responsibilities.

A subcommittee of the county’s economic development council helped the KRCC formulate the recommendation and both groups are working closely on the effort.

County Commissioner Tim Botkin on Tuesday said he wanted to be sure private sector stakeholders were also involved in the exploratory effort. He worried the public and private sectors might be working in a disjointed fashion.

But Poulsbo City Councilman Ed Stern, who is also a member of the EDC — the entity in charge of the private sector exploration — said the EDC’s role is central.

Brad Camp, a spokesman for Sprint, encouraged the KRCC to evaluate and consider public and private sector solutions, perhaps in a partnership format.

The Kitsap effort has not gone unnoticed at the federal level, either.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray two years ago helped establish a rural telecommunications working group. The committee is interested in connecting more rural-like areas with broadband capabilities.

Local Congressional leaders have lent their ears to efforts on the peninsula, and officials hope at some point that attention could lead to funding, if necessary.

In some respects, Tacoma Power’s Click! Network offers a model by which Kitsap public agencies could provide that last-mile solution.

Built about four years ago, the high-speed telecommunications system was constructed by Tacoma Power — a municipally-owned utility — to more efficiently and instantaneously monitor its electrical grid in the city.

Since then, the system has grown to include some commercial uses, such as cable TV, broadband and internet applications.

While Click! Network constructed the infrastructure necessary to connect the cable to homes and businesses in the city, other businesses such as Internet service providers and local exchange carriers are riding that connection, offering their services.

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