Expanding rural broadband a necessity, advocates say

Internet line
: Advocates at a recent Senate committee meeting on rural broadband say the state needs to continue improving broadband access for underserved populations. Photo: PxHere

Though lawmakers are still gearing up for the next legislative session, one Senate committee this week heard about the need to expand rural broadband access for rural Washingtonians and were updated on what is being done to improve the necessary infrastructure.

On Oct. 16, two members of the Senate Economic Development International Trade Committee held a public hearing on microenterprises, co-Ops, The Grange and rural broadband, during which advocates said that the internet is a necessity for businesses and communities for accessing the world market and boosting their economies.

“The global economy runs on the internet, and anyone who does not have access to the internet is left out of the economy,” Committee Chair State Sen. Maralyn Chase (D-32) said. “We cannot allow that to continue in our state.

“When I think of the thousands of homes that didn’t have access to the economy, I keep reflecting back to Harrington,” she continued, referring to a small town in her district. “They got their broadband operating—it wasn’t big, but it was there, and they are developing their economy, and the community’s kids can go back home now and it’s wonderful.”

Crystal Hottowe is a Tribal Technology Training (T3) board member and a representative from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, who said: “We want to increase resources for communications.”

She added that the Lummi nation has made strides to increase broadband access by building a small technology center, similar to an internet café, to help promote workforce development.

“People are able to go in and use the computers, take online courses and learn how to operate a computer,” Hottowe said. “It’s one thing to get the internet to you, but then you need to train your workforce.”

She said that people in areas of the state with limited or low access to broadband can no longer be ignored in today’s day and age.

“We’ve come to a point now where fast speed internet is no longer a luxury afforded by the few, but a necessity required by all,” she said.

Janea Delk, Program Director and Tribal Liason for Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB), said the board has made strides through its Rural Broadband Program to better solve the access problem. The board works on projects that encourage broadband creation and expansion within the state to drive job creation and provide for underserved communities.

CERB’s program helps join the board with underserved communities and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), which Delk says is changing the conversation when it comes to improving broadband.

“There has not been an option for communities; they used to have to work with ISPs and get the connections that they allow for them,” said Delk. “This gives them the opportunity to choose their own destiny for their rural broadband.”

In May and June, CERB hosted six Rural Broadband workshops across the state and has since approved program applications for several underserved regions. The first round of projects was approved in September and include Mason County Public Utility District (PUD) #3, Port of Skagit County and Port of Whitman County.

Delk said the efforts made for Port of Whitman County best represent the model CERB was trying to promote. CERB’s $1 million investment will be used to connect homes across five cities.

She added that CERB’s model is an affordable and feasible option for many underserved communities.

“One thing I get asked a lot is these really tiny communities how can they take out loans…we know our smallest communities sometimes are not cash rich…”

As part of CERB’s model, communities can apply for a low-interest grant package for the community to build the infrastructure needed. Those communities sign a contingency agreement with their ISPs to rent access to the broadband infrastructure and use their technology on it.

The model allows the communities to have a revenue stream on this broadband to be able to operate it, maintain it and pay back the CERB loan.

CERB will be tracking the progress on the broadband improvements and is planning to check back in five years to update the number of households and businesses being served, as well as the internet speed. CERB predicts that most communities will have more than double the amount of broadband connections after construction is completed.

Delk said she often thinks of students needing to submit online assignments who might not have the same opportunity to continue their studies in rural areas of the state.

“This is the long game,” she said. “If we are not giving our kids the same equitability of education on the peninsula or on our small rural communities on the east side, those kids are going to leave and go off to college and not come back…we are going to have zombie communities.”

Delk said CERB will be asking for $20 million for the 2019 legislative session for broadband, as well as for the program to be codified in CERB statute so it may continue permanently. That way, the communities using the program’s funding can know that they have a stable construction program to depend on.

Sen. Chase said she would like to double the money CERB is asking for. “The payback for a community having access to broadband is just immense. It’s like having electricity taken to our communities— it’s that important.”

 

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