Washington Lawmakers Struggle to Close Rural Internet Gaps

Legislation in the works could help funnel more money to broadband efforts throughout the state, but some say it still leaves sizable gaps between Internet haves and have-nots.

by Jake Goldstein-Street, The Seattle Times / March 19, 2019
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(TNS) — Some call Keller, Wash., the “black hole.” The Ferry County community of about 200 people on the Colville Indian Reservation has limited and slow broadband service that hurts students who rely on the Internet for schoolwork and hinders economic opportunities as businesses steer clear and residents decide to move away.

With a long waitlist for addiction treatment and the nearest facilities at least an hour away, the remote tribe has wanted to build a treatment center for some time. But without a fiber-optic network that can be trusted to deliver fast Internet, the tribe is unable to take advantage of telemedicine and recruiting medical professionals has mostly been a nonstarter, said Susie Allen, a member of the Colville Business Council. The facility is expected to be built this summer and officials plan to invest in broadband to ensure strong connectivity there.

A measure moving through the state Legislature would create a state office to encourage and coordinate efforts to connect underserved areas. It also would establish a competitive grant and low-Interest loan program — funded with $25 million in Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget — for communities in need.

But some want more money to narrow this gap between the Internet haves and have-nots.

John Flanagan, a policy adviser in the governor’s office — which requested the legislation — acknowledged the funding would only put a dent in the number of Washington residents living without strong broadband. The cost to connect the entire state is unknown, he said, but could be around $1 billion.

With the remote location and mountainous terrain boosting infrastructure costs, the Colville Tribe has spent $6 million to bring dependable Internet access for the tribal government, according to Allen — just one example of a rural community that needs broadband, but simply can’t fund it all alone.

Economic development

When Kathryn Witherington, economic-development coordinator for the Port of Columbia, moved to Dayton, a small town in Columbia County, her dad told her to make sure to buy a house that had Internet access. She laughed, not realizing this was still an issue in many areas.

“It’s just so outside of what I had known and I think it’s easy to forget about that,” said Witherington, who says she now pays probably $150 a month for Wi-Fi hot spots so her family of four can access the web. In more hilly areas, she notes, satellite Internet can cost $200, out of reach for many residents.

Federal Communications Commission data show that, as of the end of 2016, 92.3 percent of Americans had broadband access at benchmark speeds, but Flanagan says those numbers are “deeply flawed,” and that it’s nearly impossible to know how many Washington residents lack reliable Internet. This session’s legislation aims to flip the structure on its head. Instead of finding communities with weak broadband, grants and loans would be distributed to communities that report having problems.

Since it’s not profitable for providers to build up infrastructure in rural communities without many customers, it often has to be done by the communities themselves. The Chelan County Public Utility District, which covers Wenatchee, noting the importance of broadband, made a major commitment to give its customers faster Internet starting about 20 years ago.

“Young folks that leave, go to college, and they don’t come back because they don’t have the services that they need and desire in these areas,” said Mike Coleman, managing director of fiber and telecommunications for the Chelan County PUD. “So, your complete economic development, economic help, of a community is pretty much tied to Internet access these days.”

Coleman, who, like Witherington, made sure his house had broadband before buying it, said that between 2000 and 2026, when the county is expected to have 85 to 90 percent of its residents adequately served, the investment will have reached $125 million. He hopes more people from the western side of the state will buy second homes in the county knowing they will have strong Internet speeds and could telecommute for work.

The legislation easily passed the Senate and House, but tweaks still need to be made before the bill makes it to Inslee’s desk. Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila, prime sponsor of the House bill, which has the support of CenturyLink, said there’s “nothing to slow it down.”

CenturyLink spokeswoman Linda Johnson said in an email that her company “looks forward to working with that office on a broadband strategy that efficiently uses limited taxpayer dollars by exploring public-private partnerships with existing Internet service providers.” Such partnerships, she said can bring communities expertise and the ability to plan for upgrades “while limiting the financial risk to citizens.”

In the state House, the bill passed 95-1 and its companion passed unanimously in the Senate 47-0. As for whether there just isn’t enough money, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, who voted in favor of the measure, said during floor debate that it’s a good start but “a very, very small drop in the bucket of solving the problem.”

“Night and day”

The proposal sets up several goals for broadband service in the state. By 2024, all Washington businesses and residences should have access to high-speed broadband that provides minimum download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of three megabits per second.

By 2026, all communities in the state should have access to at least one anchor institution, such as a school, hospital or library, that has broadband speeds of one gigabit per second. And by 2028, all should have access to at least one Internet service provider with upload and download speeds of 150 megabits per second.

Last year, lawmakers passed $10 million in broadband funding for grants and loans administered by the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB).

Garfield County is one region that already has won infrastructure funding as it tries to improve reliability and affordability in a place where most households are underserved, according to Port of Garfield Executive Director Diana Ruchert. The port received a loan of more than $400,000 and more than $100,000 in a grant from CERB. Combined with about $300,000 in local money, bringing broadband to homes in the small town of Pomeroy will cost upward of $800,000, said Ruchert.

“It will totally change our whole town, our region,” said Ruchert, who said the difference between her area and Walla Walla, where many kids end up going to community college, is “night and day.”

Ruchert said some in her community can’t work from home because of unreliable broadband, so they’ve had to commute 35 miles through the rolling hills, even in the recent icy conditions.

Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, said in January that many in her community have been moving away because there’s no economic reason to stay.

“Our biggest export in rural America is our kids and it’s time that we reverse that trend and give them economic opportunity in the places where they can be successful with our communities and rebuild our communities,” Dye said.

Allen says she’s excited for the Colville Tribe to apply for funding, adding that it will create jobs as dozens in her community have already been training to be fiber installers.

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