Going big on broadband: Historic funding levels and new state report put Washington state on path to accomplish nation’s most aggressive broadband goals and break down digital equity barriers
“Broadband is infrastructure.”
That was it. That was the tweet. And it was a powerful signal of just how crucial broadband has become to strengthening the nation’s economic and social future.
As the United States rebuilds its way out of a pandemic that crushed sectors of the economy and exposed deep-rooted inequities in the workplace and within communities of color, President Joe Biden unveiled his American Jobs Plan that includes $100 billion to build out broadband infrastructure and make internet service more affordable to more people. In Washington state, the Legislature just passed historic new broadband and digital equity investments in its most recent session.
The internet first entered our homes as a fuzzy buzz and beep through telephone lines that connected to bulky desktop computers. The availability of e-mail, online search engines and chat rooms were convenient, but not necessary.
Today, internet access is almost essential for day-to-day living. It’s central to how we do business, visit with doctors, attend school and entertain ourselves. This became especially true when people needed to stay home as much as possible during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Notably, these activities no longer take place only on bulky desktop computers. For those who can afford them, portable laptops and palm-sized smart phones connect people instantly and wirelessly wherever Wi-Fi signal can be found.
That’s where things get complicated — and vastly unequal.
“Internet access is, fundamentally, about access to infrastructure, technology and digital knowledge,” says Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office (WSBO). “Unfortunately, there’s a significant divide between those who can connect online and those who can’t. Our progress as a nation, a state and as individuals depends on our success in erasing that digital divide.”
Elliott’s team is housed within the state Department of Commerce. It launched in 2019 to meet an audacious legislative mandate that all Washingtonians have access to high speed internet by 2024. In the office’s first report to the Legislature, WSBO is laser-focused on preparing local communities and Tribes to compete for historic new levels of broadband funding and expanding digital equity efforts that make sure lower-income and older populations aren’t left behind.
A new approach for empowering local communities
Elliott says that, until recently, much of the broadband conversation has been driven by the question of where internet service providers (ISPs) should invest in laying new cable or fiber.
For ISPs, it boils down to simple math. When it comes to the costs of digging and laying cable out to rural communities with low population density or rugged terrain, most ISPs don’t see a return on investment. Some communities may turn to independent carriers that are sometimes willing to be more flexible and patient about their return on investment. The state Legislature just approved a pair of bills that expand the authority of public utility districts to provide broadband — authority that has long been a topic of ongoing debate. There’s also satellite technology that some Tribes — such as the Hoh Tribe in the Olympic Peninsula — are using as a bridge until they can find a way to pay for fiber infrastructure broadband.
But Elliott says communities ultimately need scalable solutions that meet their needs over the long-term. It will take investments and collaboration among both public and private partners. Washington’s Legislature just approved an historic broadband package that includes more than $411 million in the state’s capital budget. It’s a significant plus-up from the $31 million allocated to the state’s Public Works Board and Community Economic Revitalization Board for planning and construction projects in rural communities over the past two years. Even with these new investments, federal funds are the only way local and Tribal communities can build out high speed infrastructure. WSBO estimates it will take at least $3 billion to achieve Washington’s 2024 and 2028 goals.
“We know two things. First, there is no one technology or approach that is right for every community. A top-down discussion will never get us where we need to be,” says Elliott. “Second, there is no way to do this work without federal funding. We needed a new way to engage local communities and Tribes so they can each prepare and be competitive for new funding, while all working toward a shared goal and using a shared language.”
WSBO has focused on flipping the conversation so it’s driven by communities and what they need. His team has developed a first-of-its-kind project support model that puts communities in the driver’s seat and provides a technology- and provider-neutral pathway to universal broadband access.
The new model is already showing success. Last year, Whidbey Telecom was able to win a 2020 USDA Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Award and a record number of new applicants are preparing for the 2021 round.
With a historic amount of competitive federal dollars coming soon, the stakes for Tribal and local leaders to get ready are high. Unfortunately, the playing field is skewed. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relies on federal mapping data to show where internet access is limited and funds should be directed, but their data is inadequate. Many of Washington state’s unserved regions show up as served and therefore ineligible for funding.
In addition, current FCC policies — which Elliott is pushing to change — put communities like the Hoh Tribe at a disadvantage. Their use of Starlink satellite technology, among other factors, essentially locks them out of upcoming funding rounds, despite the technology being in a beta phase and unproven to meet higher-speed standards.
Using data to reveal the gaps, partnerships to pursue the funds
The office has spent the past year aggressively surveying and mapping broadband speeds and access across the state to determine where gaps exist and accurately determine where investments are needed.
WSBO’s report indicates that of the 32,622 households surveyed, 6.4% reported no service. 57.2% reported download speeds of less than 25 Mbps and 41.1% reported upload speeds of less than 3 Mbps.
This data is what helped Whidbey Telecom win their USDA ReConnect Award. The pandemic prevented federal officials from being able to visit Point Roberts to confirm broadband access and speed rates, so they relied on the state’s access and speed survey to provide proof of unserved areas within the community.
But it will take more than just data to make the case. Local collaboration across public, private and nonprofit sectors is proving to be a necessity. It’s why WSBO is engaging deeply with a growing number of Broadband Action Teams (BATs).
Washington State University Extension (WSUE) created Washington’s first BAT in 2016 after a massive fire in Stevens County and Spokane Tribe of Indians Reservation left the fire camp without internet access for two weeks. Beyond the initial emergency response, the BAT brought together public, private and nonprofit partners from Tribes, ISPs, local school districts, local fire districts, cities and counties, state agencies, libraries, health care providers and others. Together, they’ve created shared goals and strategies for increasing broadband access.
Last year near the start of the pandemic, the BAT worked with WSBO to map all of Stevens County. While FCC maps showed the area 100 percent covered, WSBO’s survey showed 70 percent of respondents had download speeds below 25 Mbps and 16 percent had no service. That included 500 of the school district’s 1,700 children. Their work captured the attention of congressional leaders and the FCC and provided an opportunity to talk about the need for updated maps.
“The most exciting part of this is the collaboration,” says Monica Babine, senior associate for WSUE’s Program for Digital Initiatives and one of the people who helped launch the Stevens County and Spokane Tribe BAT. “Because we have the school district superintendent at the table, he can go right to the students and families for information. Rural access and adoption issues are a statewide issue but the solutions are local.”
Today, there are more than 30 BATs around the state. WSBO’s report highlights the important role BATs have to bringing broadband to rural areas where local or Tribal governments may not have capacity on their own to pursue funding or stand up projects.
Comcast is one of the providers participating in several BATs. The company has a rural deployment initiative and recently announced several rural broadband expansion projects in Spokane, Snohomish and Whatcom counties and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.
Andy Colley, the company’s external communications director, says most of these projects have been under discussion for years but the pandemic has significantly elevated the profile of these projects and elevated interest in doing more.
“Sumas is an example where we’d been talking to local leaders the past couple years, but when the pandemic hit, we focused on accelerating that process,” Colley said, referencing an announcement this month that Comcast is expanding service to 815 homes in rural Whatcom County. “These projects take time, so engaging with communities is absolutely crucial to our rural deployment strategy. There’s no one entity that can do this alone.”
New focus on digital equity
Access to broadband infrastructures is only part of the problem. While precise data isn’t available, WSBO’s report highlights that access to internet-enabled devices, affordable internet service, digital literacy and technical support are significant barriers, especially for lower-income, Native American and older households.
This is one reason the governor’s Poverty Reduction Workgroup earlier this year identified digital equity as a top priority in ensuring people experiencing poverty have access to resources they need to survive and thrive.
These barriers became especially urgent during the pandemic. Students couldn’t join online classrooms. People couldn’t meet with their doctors. Seniors couldn’t schedule virtual visits with their doctors. Laid off workers couldn’t apply for work. Businesses couldn’t maintain operations online.
WSUE was among more than a dozen public and private partners who came together with WSBO to launch the Drive-In WiFi Hotspots project. The idea started as a plan to put hotspots at 40 WSUE locations but ultimately expanded to a three-phase public-private collaboration that resulted in more than 320 new sites, ultimately bringing the total number of drive-in hotspots to more than 600.
“I have never seen public and private entities, nonprofits, providers, educators and others come together like this,” Babine said.
With more people getting connected, Babine and Michael Gaffney, who directs WSUE’s economic development program unit, are turning their attention to other barriers. They’re partnering with the AWB Institute to expand their rural remote worker program that aims to help unemployed and underemployed workers gain skills — including digital skills — for working from home. But they say this type of program can be useful for anyone needing to learn how to work or learn online.
“Anyone who’s newly tech-enabled will need help learning the various platforms, understanding how to search for work online, and even the soft skills associated with working or learning remotely,” Gaffney said. “There are so many programs out there to help people. It comes back to partnerships. Just like broadband infrastructure is local, so is digital equity.”
Comcast’s Colley agrees. The company has a decade-old Internet Essentials program for low-cost internet service to people who are eligible for certain public assistance programs. Comcast launched its expanded Internet Essentials Partnership Program in August 2020 to partner with cities, schools and nonprofits to connect K-12 students and their households to low-cost broadband internet service, computer equipment and digital literacy training. The company also partnered with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction last year to expand the state’s K-12 Internet Access Program, as well as various community centers and organizations as part of its “Lift Zones” effort.
“These kinds of programs and partnerships are necessary if we really want to address all the barriers,” Colley said. “Price is just one of those barriers. It’s through our work with community organizations such as veterans groups or nonprofits that we can also connect people with things like digital literacy training and access to laptops.”
What comes next?
The new state funding approved by the Legislature allows WSBO, the Public Works Board, and the Community Economic Revitalization Board (CERB) to provide expanded infrastructure grant and grant/loan programs across the state. Funds also support the creation of a Federal Match Funds Account. Many federal funding programs require a 25% match from local applicants. This can amount to tens of millions of dollars and is a barrier for many otherwise competitive applications. The Federal Match Funds Account will allow the state to assist locals in meeting those essential match requirements for upcoming programs.
WSBO continues to work with BATs, Tribes, local municipalities, public utility districts, ports, and ISPs as federal competitive grants open up this year. Ongoing access and speed survey participation will help the state further refine data about where there are gaps in speed and access.
In addition to the infrastructure funding approved by the Legislature this session, they also funded $1.7 million for WSBO to significantly expand its digital equity work and make devices more affordable for more people. The funding will enable WSBO to facilitate a digital navigator program in ten regions throughout the state, and hire a digital equity manager who can help drive digital equity priorities statewide and cultivate more broadband action teams.
In addition, the FCC is launching a $3.2 billion emergency broadband benefit to help households with lower incomes pay for internet service and devices. WSBO will be working with community partners statewide to promote the benefit, which is expected to become available in the coming weeks.
Elliott says all the groundwork laid the past two years by WSBO and local jurisdictions throughout Washington state is about to pay off., and he’s more optimistic about the state meeting its universal access goals than ever before.
“This is the infrastructure of our future. We have never before seen this level of investment, and we’ve never been more prepared to go for it.”