Skykomish School Superintendent Thomas Jay in the school’s server room. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Skykomish School Superintendent Thomas Jay in the school’s server room. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Internet’s ‘final frontier’: Broadband is coming to Skykomish!

The mountain town today limps along with poky phone-line connections. But there’s this fiber-optic cable …

SKYKOMISH — What would Skykomish high schooler Gage Altman do in an ideal Skykomish, one where internet flowed free?

Easy.

Get through some Colter Wall country tunes without his phone skipping and sputtering. Play Xbox with his cousin. Give the family Wi-Fi password to visitors who asked for it, instead of dodging their questions.

The tiny King County town, tucked deep in the Cascades along U.S. 2, still relies on slow DSL connections, delivered through phone lines. There are limited hookups — word gets around when someone moves and leaves one up for grabs. In the evenings, the internet slows to a crawl.

“De facto,” said town Councilmember Shelly Farnham, “a lot of the community just doesn’t really have access to the internet at all.”

From downtown, Skykomish’s 200 or so residents can see the tower that delivers their DSL. It stands tall on Maloney Ridge. Superintendent Thomas Jay has watched snowmobiles trek up to restore the lines after storm-induced power outages.

A recent survey found median download/upload speeds at 9.65/1.13 mbps. Compare that to what the feds considers the minimum standard for broadband: 25/3 mbps. (A recent speed test at The Daily Herald’s newsroom reported speeds around 71/41 mbps.)

A radio dish points toward a tower that delivers the school’s internet connection in Skykomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A radio dish points toward a tower that delivers the school’s internet connection in Skykomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Things will change next summer. With the help of a nearly $600,000 state grant, Ziply Fiber will build 670 broadband connections in Skykomish and surrounding neighborhoods in the valley, tapping a fiber line that now passes through town unimpeded.

Requests for broadband funding more than doubled what the state Public Works Board could give out. Of the 13 projects awarded statewide, Skykomish’s chunk of money was the smallest.

Even so, “this is a major game-changer,” Jay said.

The town’s connectivity doesn’t just keep teens from streaming music. It means less access to telemedicine, or the inability to work from home. It means when too many folks come into Sky River Coffee to use the internet, owner Moe Ainsley gets that dreaded red banner on her card reader — there’s not enough of a connection to ring up a cup of joe.

“People who live in the mountains their whole life,” Farnham said, “it’s almost like they don’t even realize what they’re missing.”

School work is projected on a smart board in a classroom at the school in Skykomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

School work is projected on a smart board in a classroom at the school in Skykomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Altman knows what he’s missing. He was using speedy fiber internet this summer in Utah.

“It smokes this place,” he said.

Last year, when students were sent home to learn virtually, civics teacher and former mayor Tony Grider would frequently walk to students’ houses so he could help them with technical problems or hand-deliver packets and lessons. That was after setting his own seven kids up for the school day.

“Imagine how frustrating it is to have a group of students and a third of them can’t hear me, can’t see me,” he told The Daily Herald. “Not because they don’t have computers, but because they don’t have an internet connection.”

It’s not fair or equitable to students, Jay echoed.

Altman would get booted out of Zoom classes multiple times a day. He’d wander into the kitchen for a snack, waiting to reconnect. There, Dad would remind him he should be in class.

“I’m like, ‘I know! I should!’” Altman said.

A small sign marks the location of an untapped fiber-optic cable that runs through Skykomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A small sign marks the location of an untapped fiber-optic cable that runs through Skykomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

The irony is that fiber has been in town for years. A line runs underground through Skykomish, right past a row of houses.

“I remember sitting on dial-up and knowing the fiberoptic line is out in my backyard,” Grider said. “It just really ticked me off.”

Skykomish relied on dial-up as recently as six or seven years ago. Grider offers a near-perfect imitation of the awful trills and screeches that came with it, like a robotic bird on its last legs.

Last week, he walked his four-person civics class over the tracks that draw trainspotters, past a few train-shaped roadsigns and around the town’s own tiny railway, where tourists can ride a ⅛-scale locomotive.

There, Grider pointed to the snow-covered metal sign announcing that yes, fiber is here. So watch where you dig.

“It’s not as simple as going out there and splicing the wire,” said Mayor Henry Sladek, standing in the historic inn he runs in town.

It’s an expensive feat. The whole project will cost $1.3 million. And it makes sense it hasn’t happened yet — extending infrastructure to so few customers isn’t a cash cow.

There used to be more people here. In the 1920s, Skykomish had a few thousand residents, but the population declined with the Great Depression, along with a waning timber and mining industry.

High school students walk through Skykomish, past the library, which is one of two places with public access to internet. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

High school students walk through Skykomish, past the library, which is one of two places with public access to internet. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Lining the halls of the school are framed photos of each graduating class. This year, it was a class of one.

It all chalks up to a town that feels like the “old west,” Grider said.

The town’s request for state assistance similarly called Skykomish and upper Sky Valley communities “the final frontier of telecommunications.”

“Through time, Skykomish children have suffered from isolation. … They’re completely alone,” Grider said. “They’re King County kids, but they’re stuck in this little corner.”

In field trips to Seattle, Grider’s students have been in awe of theater productions, architecture and other cultures. Eleventh-grader Luca Laverde said his family can’t really watch the news without cable or good streaming capacity. He still prefers Skykomish to big cities, though. They smell bad.

New broadband could fulfill a long-time wish of some Skykomish leaders who want to see tech workers move to town and be able to work remotely. It could boost the economy and grow the tax base.

Students from Tony Grider’s 11th grade class walk through Skykomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Students from Tony Grider’s 11th grade class walk through Skykomish. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Even with the new broadband project, some outlying communities won’t be reached. The town’s library and coffee shop have been an option for them. A new public space is in the works to offer free broadband internet downtown.

In reality, Sladek said, plenty of retired folks in Skykomish don’t mind the isolation. Some couldn’t care less about the prospect of broadband internet.

It’s different for some youngsters.

“This place is tough,” Altman said. “I know every single student here from pre-K to 12th grade.”

Better connection? “That’d be legendary.”

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @yawclaudia.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Staff are evaluating two more light rail alternatives for the Everett Link extension. One would follow Interstate 5 north of 128th Street SW to the Everett Mall and back to the freeway. Another would go west of 128th Street SW to Highway 99 and north to Casino Road. (Sound Transit)
Snohomish County leaders reject light rail routes bypassing Paine Field

Those options weren’t what voters approved — and would be like “butchering” the plan, the Snohomish County executive said.

A Sound Transit train arrives at Westlake Station in downtown Seattle. (Sue Misao / Herald file) May 2019
Should light rail skip Paine Field and Boeing? We asked, you answered

More than 300 Herald readers responded to an online poll. Here are the results.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Lake Stevens in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Highway 9 work could disrupt travel through Lake Stevens

Construction is set for roundabouts on South Lake Stevens Road and one at North Davies Road and Vernon Road.

Lynnwood City Council members, from left: Jim Smith, Shirley Sutton, Shannon Sessions, Josh Binda, George Hurst, Julieta Altamirano-Crosby, and Patrick Decker. (City of Lynnwood)
No penalty for Lynnwood council member’s ‘underinformed’ views on racism

The City Council didn’t censure Jim Smith after a report found he discriminated against a Black city employee.

All ears: Mukilteo couple provides surgery for kids born without ears

Dr. Prabhat and Trish Bhama are part of a HUGS volunteer team providing treatment for microtia in Guatemala.

Smoke from the Bolt Creek fire silhouettes a mountain ridge and trees just outside of Index on Sept. 12, 2022. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Humans caused Bolt Creek wildfire, authorities say

Specifics about what ignited the flames remained under investigation. Meanwhile, all evacuation orders have been lifted.

FILE - Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., speaks during a news conference the vote to codify Roe v. Wade, in this May 5, 2022 file photo on Capitol Hill in Washington. Murray is one of the U.S. Senate's most powerful members and seeking a sixth term. She is being challenged by Tiffany Smiley, a Republican from Pasco, Wash. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Providence continues to face questions about hospital debt collection

The hospital group has pushed back against the notion that Providence “intentionally takes advantage of those who are vulnerable.”

Officers working in North Everett located and arrested the suspect from a June 20 shooting that left two dead and one injured in the 2000 block of Lexington. (Everett Police Department)
Everett triple shooting suspect tied to another homicide

A search warrant points to Shayne Baker, 26, as the suspect in the killing of Scott Pullen at a storage facility in Everett.

(Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest - US Forest Service)
U.S. 2 reopens east of Index as Bolt Creek wildfire moves north

The highway was blocked off earlier this week as the fire spread.

Most Read