DARRINGTON — At Mayor Dan Rankin’s house, only one person can be online at a time.
“If one of us is on Zoom or a Google Meet, the other person who is working has to quit,” Rankin said.
In Darrington and other rural communities, many residents have struggled to work remotely during the pandemic due to slow connections, Rankin said.
And over the past two years, fast and reliable internet has become an absolute necessity for work, school and telemedicine.
Internet is often expensive and options are limited in rural Snohomish County, the mayor said.
A collaboration between county government and internet provider Ziply Fiber aims to expand high-speed internet access to businesses and thousands of residents along Highway 530.
The county announced the partnership last week along with a $16.7 million grant from the state Department of Commerce Broadband Office.
The grant will help pay to build a fiber network from Arlington to Darrington.
The project promises to provide direct connections to nearly 5,600 locations, offering internet speeds of at least 100 Mbps download and upload speeds. The first customers could get connected January 2024, according to the county.
The project is to be a major leap forward for places with unreliable or no service, county and local leaders said.
“My hope is that everybody has that opportunity (for high-speed internet), not just the folks who live in town or the small circles of connectivity throughout the community,” Rankin said. “It becomes an equity issue for everybody out here.”
The project is expected to serve about 6,500 students in the Arlington, Darrington and Stanwood-Camano school districts.
The grants targeted communities with download speeds slower than 25 Mbps — the bare minimum for high-speed broadband defined by the Federal Communications Commission. The state has a much more ambitious goal: 150 Mbps for all residents and businesses by 2028.
Last year, Snohomish County Council members Nate Nehring and Sam Low and county Executive Dave Somers formed the Broadband Action Team to gather data on broadband need throughout the county.
“It showed some significant gaps … and this is one of them, on the (Highway) 530 corridor,” Nehring said.
Nehring, who represents the district from Stanwood to Darrington, said the county is discussing using American Rescue Plan Act funds to build connections in other rural parts of the county, where fiber installation can be costly.
Ziply Fiber, headquartered in Kirkland, has partnered with local governments around Washington on similar fiber projects in the past.
The total cost of the Snohomish County project is about $27.6 million, according to the county’s grant application. Ziply will cover the portion not funded by the grant, with the help of federal money.
The new funding will speed up the project by two years over Ziply’s previous timeline, according to the county.
According to the grant application, Ziply would need to “ensure long term service to … residents, businesses and community institutions in the project area.”
Ziply spokesperson Dan Miller said the company expects to begin construction on the network this summer, both on utility poles and underground.
Darrington School District Superintendent Tracy Franke said she is grateful a portion of the district’s 420 students may have reliable home internet access in the future. However, families in the district who reside in Skagit County won’t benefit, she said.
“These are the same kids that during our distance learning, they didn’t even have reliable cell service” to connect to Wi-Fi hotspots, she said.
Students have returned to classrooms, but they still need to get online to turn in homework and communicate with teachers, she said.
“It would be amazing if the counties could work together to get that section of the school district covered, and all of our families would have the equitable services,” Franke said.
The state is making an additional $120 million in grants available this spring for fiber construction.