Reprinted from The Reflector (June 28, 2016)

by Carla Christian, for The Reflector

RIDGEFIELD – When the Port of Ridgefield began to explore what modern industries would need to build a successful business in the area termed the “Discovery Corridor,” they found that many of the desired assets were already in place, such as a major transportation corridor, high quality healthcare and higher education. But one key piece of the puzzle was missing – the infrastructure for high-speed data transfer.

On Tuesday, June 28, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Old Liberty Theater in Ridgefield, the Port of Ridgefield will host a public information session about the port’s fiber development project, and its significance to the community and beyond.

In addition to an introduction and status report of the port’s fiber development project, the event will feature a panel discussion to explain what dark fiber is, why the port is taking on the project and why the project is important to Washington State University – Vancouver, and to private industry in the area.

Panelists for the event will be Joe Poire, chief executive officer of the Port of Whitman County; Michael Stamper, chief information officer at Washington State University – Vancouver; and Mike Bomar, president of Columbia River Economic Development Council.

The development of fiber optic infrastructure in the Discovery Corridor is critical to attracting industry and jobs to the area, said Nelson Holmberg, vice president of Innovation at Port of Ridgefield. The Ridgefield Port District encompasses roughly 5,000 acres bordering Interstate 5, an area christened the Discovery Corridor. This stretch of land extends from Salmon Creek northward to La Center.

The proposed “dark” fiber optics system would be constructed by the port, and consists of the physical cables that might run through trenches and overhead. The actual data services to consumers would be operated by private service providers under a lease agreement. Once the system is in operation, funds received can be used for future expansions or upgrades.

The new system is still in the planning stages. A map has been developed that outlines the scope of the plan, stretching from 159th Street on the south to the Lewis River on the north, and from the Columbia River on the west to 50th Avenue on the east. The boundaries dip further south along Interstate 5 to encompass Washington State University – Vancouver and Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital, institutions that share a need for high speed data transfer.

Holmberg stressed the importance of having a comprehensive plan well in advance of construction. This allows the port to take advantage of work already taking place in trenches and overhead lines, creating financial savings and fewer disruptions.

Many questions about implementation of the fiber optics system remain, including sources of funding for the project. Some funding options might include grants, existing port funds or a public/private partnership.

The plan is the culmination of work with the Columbia River Economic Development Council focused on bringing new industry the Port of Ridgefield. The assessment prioritized the types of businesses that would be best suited for the community, and settled on software, health care and advanced manufacturing.

“That’s the type of businesses we need because that’s the type of workforce we have,” Holmberg said. “We looked at those industries, and asked ‘what do you need’.”

A big piece of what they needed was data.

Whitman County, home to the city of Pullman in eastern Washington, is in their 16th year of constructing dark fiber optics, and will be the subject of Poire’s discussion. The project is credited with creating 2,900 new jobs on a 240-acre industrial park, and 16 private companies provide services utilizing the network.

New businesses that came in include research and development, connectivity and even a company that operates a South American power grid. Even mobile phone services depend on cables running through the ground; the cell phone towers use the fiber system to deliver service.

Stamper will explain the ways in which fiber optics are critical to the mission of Washington State University – Vancouver. Finally, Bomar will examine what fiber optics mean to private industry, and why it is as important as, for example, buildings to the development of the Discovery Corridor.

The actual speed of future data service will be determined by service providers, said Holmberg. “This is a 30-year investment,” he said. “It can withstand increasing speeds (in data service).”

The upcoming event will offer an opportunity to learn about the proposed dark fiber optics in more detail.

A reception precedes the panel discussion. All are welcome, and there will be an opportunity to ask questions. Old Liberty Theater, where the panel discussion will be held, is located at 115 N. Main Ave., in Ridgefield.