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Washington Will Get $1B for Broadband. How Much Will It Help?

The federal government has announced that Washington state will get more than $1.2 billion to expand Internet access. But how big of an impact will the money actually make for residents?

An aerial view of rural Washington state near Bellingham.
(TNS) — More than $1.2 billion is slated to come to Washington state for investment in affordable and reliable high-speed Internet access, one of the largest state allocations in the country from an ambitious federal funding initiative intended to deliver "Internet for All."

The grant allocations to states, Washington D.C. and American territories were announced Monday as part of the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program. Washington state will receive the 10th most of all jurisdictions and the second most of any western state, behind only California.

The funding will be used for deploying or upgrading broadband networks. Combined with other federal investments, it will enable the United States to meet its target of connecting every person to reliable, high-speed Internet by 2030, President Joe Biden said Monday in remarks from the White House, according to an official transcript.

Washington state's share exceeded the initial estimates from the Washington State Broadband Office by more than $300 million, according to the office's director, Mark Vasconi.

Even so, it's projected to cost billions of dollars to completely fill remaining gaps in Internet service throughout the state, Gov. Jay Inslee wrote in a post Tuesday on Medium.

"I'm thrilled to see the federal government stepping up to invest in the work we've been doing for years to expand equitable access to high-speed Internet," Inslee wrote in the post. "We're going to put this funding to work connecting Washingtonians across the state to broadband, with all the opportunities this technology brings."

Six percent of households in Washington have no Internet access or device to get online, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.


While it remains to be seen how the state's funding will be distributed to local jurisdictions, an infusion of new money to bridge the digital divide was welcomed in Pierce County.

Debi Ross, strategy and performance division manager with the county, said in an interview Tuesday that the funding posed "a wonderful opportunity to get broadband access to people who are currently unserved or under-served."

"I think 1.2 (billion dollars) is just a really big number, right? So I think that's pretty exciting," she said. "There still are more than a quarter-million Washington residents without service, so we still know that the need is great."

The County Council passed a resolution in July 2019 declaring broadband to be essential infrastructure, but infrastructure is expensive and has proven to be a barrier to ensuring all residents are linked up to the Internet.

"Unserved portions of Pierce County face the same challenges as other rural communities in attracting broadband infrastructure investment," a March 2021 consultant's report for the county noted. "The economics of rural broadband mean there is no silver bullet to solve these problems; some form of subsidy is needed for broadband providers to make a business case."

In recent years, county officials have sought to boost access in five geographical districts in the unincorporated county where broadband is lacking by offering incentives to private Internet service providers, such as waiving permit fees and other costs or expediting permit reviews.

An estimated 14,000 households within those five districts — a combination of rural and geographically challenging areas — don't have broadband access, according to Ross.

"For our broadband incentive districts, we believe that the infrastructure is not there," she said. "It's not a matter of (residents) not being able to afford in those areas. It's a matter of it's just not there."


In the city of Tacoma, infrastructure is not a challenge, according to an online post authored in October by Mayor Victoria Woodards. The article — written for the National League of Cities, of which she is president — was titled, "How Tacoma, WA is Narrowing its Digital Divide."

"More than 99% of homes in our city have fast, modern broadband networks passing by their front door, and 98% have a choice of multiple providers," Woodards wrote. "But only 71% of Tacomans are signed up for wired broadband service."

Woodards wrote that access to a home computer and poor digital skills have been more relevant issues. In 2015, the City Council launched the city's Digital Equity Program with two core goals: universal broadband access and digital literacy.

"In Tacoma, we recognized early on that digital equity is a foundational challenge for our future — and that strong cooperation between the public, private, and non-profit sectors needs to be the North Star guiding our progress," Woodards wrote.

The city isn't expecting to have a detailed grasp on what the new federal grant's local benefits could be until late summer, according to city spokesperson Stacy Ellifritt.

The difficulties of expanding Internet access in the unincorporated county and Tacoma reflect separate factors of the digital divide, according to Sharonne Navas, the executive director of the Equity in Education Coalition of Washington. In an interview, she said that some families cannot afford laptops, keyboards and headsets, and there is also a lack of physical infrastructure for that "last mile" to connect broadband into people's homes in rural communities.

The coalition is the largest group working with communities of color and low-income and rural areas to address the digital divide. With new funding coming, Navas said that she hoped that the state would plan for technology needed in the future to ensure universal Internet access and that she believed that too often such access isn't viewed as a basic right.

"If it's done strategically, leading with equity, we could actually make a huge difference in the lives of a lot of people who are currently either not connected, only connected through their phone or connected through a satellite that could go out during a strong wind storm," she said.

The influx of money could aid organizations such as her own to teach tens of thousands of people each year how to use the Internet and remain safe from cybersecurity threats, she added, noting that many regular tasks — such as accessing food, receiving health care, applying for rental assistance and attending school — are navigated online.

"The Internet's not going away and it's become an even more integral part of our life," she said.


Whatever the local share of $1.2 billion, the grant funding will represent only the latest dollars from the federal government for programs to expand broadband access.

More than 15,000 unconnected households in the city of Tacoma are eligible for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which essentially offers free Internet service to low-income families, Woodards wrote in her post late last year.

Two years ago, the county directed $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars toward bridging the broadband gap. The county's now working on collecting hard fast data that illustrates the current state of broadband access within its borders.

Ross noted that the FCC's map of broadband availability, illustrating where Internet service exists in the United States down to local levels, has been problematic. The map is used to identify areas in need of infrastructure investments, and informs funding decisions, but it tends to overstate how many people already have Internet access, according to Ross.

She encouraged residents to visit the map, check their address and challenge if the information is inaccurate. The map is available at

While Biden has set a target of Internet for everyone by 2030, the county is aligned with the state Broadband Office's measures. Those include the goal of high-speed Internet service for all businesses and residences by 2028. The office, under the state's Department of Commerce, was created by the Legislature in 2019 at Inslee's request, according to the governor's post on Medium.

Inslee noted that the state has "steadily" provided grant funding; partnered with communities, including Tribal groups, over the past several years to address shortfalls in connectivity; and enabled some public entities to offer broadband services directly to customers.

During the pandemic, Ross said, the county saw how communities without high-speed Internet access had educational opportunities and livelihoods impacted.

"The world seems to have fundamentally shifted now that flexibility to telework, being able to access education and information from home — it's only going to become more and more important," Ross said. "So we definitely want to make sure that Pierce County has equity in our access."

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