How the state and federal governments are working together to bring high-speed internet to every corner of the Evergreen State
President Biden’s administration announced this week that Washington will receive more than $1.2 billion to expand high-speed Internet networks across the state.
“I am thrilled to see the federal government step up its investment in the work we have been doing for years to expand equitable access to high-speed Internet,” Governor Jay Inslee said. We will put this funding to work to connect Washingtonians across the state to broadband, with all the opportunities that this technology offers.
Washington consistently ranks among the best-connected states in the country when it comes to Internet access. But there are still nearly 230,000 households in Washington that are not using broadband services, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
These families face multiple obstacles. For some, it’s a lack of infrastructure in rural areas. For others, it’s a matter of convenience the monthly subscription fee or the cost of an Internet-enabled device is simply not within their budget. For still others, it’s a matter of the technical knowledge they need to develop certain digital skills that many of us take for granted.
Today, with the growing availability of remote working, telehealth, online education and workforce training, internet access is essential. The price of staying logged out is high and rising. And despite record state investments in broadband programs, those without access have continued to fall behind.
The projected cost of fully addressing remaining gaps in Internet service statewide is in the billions of dollars. Private companies have not extended service to some less populated parts of the state simply because the construction and maintenance work required is too expensive and unprofitable.
As a result, state government has taken action in recent years to partner with communities and close the digital divide across Washington. With the influx of federal funding, the state will be able to scale up these efforts and serve more Washington residents.
Tailored programs for the communities they serve
The leadership of the Nisqually tribes looked at expanding broadband the same way it had looked at building the power grid a century earlier. They recognized this as a need for the tribe to fully engage in the social and economic opportunities afforded by new technologies. They drew this parallel explicitly in meeting scheduling.
We called it lighting the rez, said Joe Cushman, an economic development director with the Nisqually.
In 2017, the tribe applied to the state of Washington for funds to build its own high-speed Internet network. Through creative public and private partnerships, they have also embarked on a training program to create the workforce needed to build drilling, trenching, cable-joining, and line-laying broadband infrastructure. The workforce training program has become a fixture in the booking and has a 90 percent job placement rate for college graduates, according to Mike Mason, the economic development manager at Tribes.
This is a great strategy: it’s about making connectivity accessible; it’s about working with communities so they can take advantage of the high-speed Internet; it’s about training to get workers into the industry, Mason said.
Those living on Nisqually tribe land now have access to advanced one gigabit broadband faster than is available in many cities across the United States. And the tribe is now working with others, including the Chehalis Tribe and Thurston and Pierce Counties to expand their network beyond reservation boundaries.
Innovative efforts like this are being replicated across the state. In 2018, Washington’s Utilities and Transportation Commission provided $800,000 to help bring broadband to the Quileute tribe and residents of La Push. The new federal Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program will provide significant funding to enable tribes to continue doing this work.
Thanks to legislation passed in 2021, some public bodies can provide broadband services directly to their constituencies. Some Washington cities and counties, including the City of Anacortes and the Jefferson County Public Utility District, have started their own Internet service providers, rather than waiting for private companies to build the infrastructure.
We’re taking that extra step to be that retail ISP so that, in our rural areas, we can assure our customers that if we build it, there will be someone there to provide that service and take care of that service in case something goes wrong. wrong, said Will O’Donnell, director of communications for the Jeffersons Public Utility District.
The Washington State Public Works Board supported Jefferson County’s PUDs project with a $1.8 million loan last year to help connect hundreds of businesses in and around Port Town, the only incorporated city in the county to High speed internet.
The crucial role of the SBO
The State Broadband Office (SBO) within the Washington State Department of Commerce oversees this crucial work. It coordinates public and private investments and ensures that resources are used efficiently and fairly. Approved by the Legislature in 2019 at the request of Inslees, the office is driven by a legislative mandate to ensure that all businesses and residences in Washington have access to some form of Internet service by 2024 and that all businesses and residences have access to high-speed Internet service by 2028.
The state has consistently provided grants to projects across the state. Recent rounds include $121 million in grants for 19 projects that will bring access to nearly 15,000 people in underserved and underserved communities across Washington.
The SBO understood what was at stake before the federal government’s funding decision. Commerce and the SBO worked closely with federal partners, including the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to map out where new infrastructure would be needed to achieve the goal of an Internet for all in Washington.
The polls they conducted, which included official challenges to the FCC’s initial maps, were instrumental in ensuring that the FCC understood just how great the funding need was in Washington. Poll efforts and other outreach work have helped secure federal grants for Washington counties in the past and increased the amount of federal money Washington has received as part of the BEAD program announced this week.
All our schools are connected by optical fibre. That’s half the equation. The other half is when the kids come home, they don’t have good Internet access, said Mark Cockerill, a community board member at Key Peninsula. In some cases they have no internet at all. And the same goes for some of our teachers. [Without internet access at home] they cannot do what they have to do, to progress and move forward.
Promote digital literacy
SBO’s goals go beyond building infrastructure. Their digital equity programs also offer Washingtonians the opportunity to learn how to use broadband-enabled devices, through Washington’s Digital Navigator program.
Since its inception in 2022, the office’s Digital Navigator team has served tens of thousands of clients. Services range from basic digital literacy training for tasks such as online banking and telehealth appointments to more advanced instruction in advanced tasks such as database design and mobile app building, the types of skills that can lead to family wage jobs and careers.
Telecommunications technology alleviates the tyranny of distance by connecting people. Bridging the digital divide means much more than providing fiber optic lines or wireless infrastructure. It’s about bringing communities together, said Mark Vasconi, director of the state broadband office in Washington.
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