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Walla Walla, Wash., Studies Feasibility of Broadband for All

The Walla Walla Community Council is inviting community members to participate in a 26-week study focusing on access to broadband Internet and digital literacy for area residents, businesses and organizations.

Closeup of a pile of yellow broadband cables with blue caps.
(TNS) — "Internet for all" has been a topic on the minds of educators, business owners, government officials, health care providers and others for years.

According to the Federal Communications Commission's most recent broadband deployment report, about 14 million Americans lack access to broadband, defined as high-speed, reliable internet with true download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 megabits per second. It can be delivered via fiber, wireless, satellite, digital subscriber line (usually referred to as DSL), or cable.

Walla Walla Community Council intends to look at that situation in this area of the country, starting this month.

The organization is inviting community members to participate in a 26-week study focusing on access to broadband internet and digital literacy for area residents, businesses and organizations.

"Since 2016, the number of Americans living in rural areas lacking access to 25/3 Mbps service has fallen more than 46%. As a result, the rural-urban divide is rapidly closing; the gap between the percentage of urban Americans and the percentage of rural Americans with access to ... broadband has been nearly halved, falling from 30 points at the end of 2016 to just 16 points at the end of 2019," the FCC's 2021 report notes.

Nonetheless, the lack of broadband access for all is an issue that was brought into sharp focus in the early months of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic sent people home to work, continue with school and socialize.

The local Community Council study group will learn about barriers to accessing the internet and make recommendations to overcome those barriers, said Mary Campbell, executive director of the organization.

At the end of the study, the nonprofit will publish a report to present the committee's learning and recommendations for change.

Community Council serves residents in Columbia and Walla Walla counties, plus the Milton-Freewater area. Residents of those areas are encouraged to participate, Campbell said in a news release.

The study committee will focus findings and recommendations around a central question: "How can we create universal access to affordable broadband internet in our region?" said Community Council's research coordinator, Catherine Veninga.

"Broadband internet today is part of the basic infrastructure that enables the flow of information, goods and services," according to the study outline.

A lack of broadband internet significantly limits timely information and access to critical services.

"Digital technologies are integral to how we learn, work, play, stay healthy and shop," said Tobit Salazar, chair the study committee.

"The inability to meaningfully access digital technologies limits residents' ability to engage in everyday activities such as employment, education and health care, and makes existing inequalities even worse."

The study committee will hear from a broad variety of experts and stakeholders as part of the seven-month study process. The study will look at existing and planned broadband infrastructure, identify broadband technologies, examine costs associated with broadband access, and explore people's experience accessing and using broadband internet.

In Columbia County, for example, leaders came together to make a fiber network for the community. Plans call for every household in Dayton city limits to have access to the paid service by early 2023.

Community Council is a regional nonprofit, focused on citizen-driven problem solving. Impacts from previous studies include InkOut Tattoo Removal Program, Blue Mountain Region Trails Plan, Elevate — a regional educational attainment alliance, and Common Roots Housing Trust.

The "Internet for All" study will be the organization's ninth community study. Previous studies have led to a variety of change initiatives in the Walla Walla area. Learn more about Community Council at wwcommunitycouncil.org.

For more information and to volunteer for the Internet for All study group, contact Catherine Veninga at cveninga@wwcommunitycouncil.org or call 509-529-0119.

© 2022 Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (Walla Walla, Wash.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.