How Washington State Could Use Federal Infrastructure Money To Bridge The Digital Divide – GeekWire

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Rolling out broadband across Washington state has been a focus of local lawmakers for years. The state legislature passed a bill in 2019, which recognized that access to a reliable internet connection was a critical issue for residents.

Now, a major funding package for broadband infrastructure and payment assistance is on its way to Washington.

The state is expected to receive at least $100 million from the Infrastructure and Jobs Act that was signed into law in November, which will go towards rolling out broadband infrastructure. The state will also receive funding from the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which will provide low-income households with up to $30 per month to help pay their broadband bills. And it’s also using $145 million from the US bailout for broadband rollout.

That “once in a generation” funding was a long time coming, Washington State Rep. Marilyn Strickland said during a virtual panel Thursday. She added that the pandemic has further exposed the digital divide, which describes the inequality faced by people living in rural or disadvantaged areas who do not have access to a reliable internet connection.

Marilyn Strickland.

Broadband access is now more of a utility than a luxury, Strickland said. She added that the growing adoption of work-from-home, distance learning and telehealth options creates a need for a reliable connection more than ever.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 14.5 million Americans do not have access to broadband. It considers download speeds of 100 megabits per second and upload speeds of 20 Mbps as minimum requirements for a reliable connection.

On Thursday, Microsoft released a street-by-street map of digital inequality in the country, which shows broadband access may actually be worse than what the FCC says. In Ferry County, Washington, for example, nearly 97% of residents don’t have broadband access, according to Microsoft data.

Microsoft’s new digital equity data dashboard highlights digital equity gaps in the state.

At a virtual event titled “Bridging the Digital Divide: Opportunity in the Fed’s Infrastructure Package for Washington,” hosted by the Washington Technology Industry Association, broadband industry leaders gathered to discuss the best way for the state to deploy incoming funding. The state aims to provide all residents with high-speed internet access by 2028.

Read on for five key takeaways from this discussion.

  1. North Carolina is an example of how to select areas to deploy funds effectively, said Beth Cooley, assistant vice president, state and legislative affairs at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. She said state leaders created a metric system to help identify counties that would benefit the most from broadband infrastructure investments. These parameters include: How many households will the broadband deployment cover? What would be the cost per household? And will the project provide mobile broadband in addition to home broadband? A similar dashboard for determining where funding is allocated could be applied in Washington, she said.
  2. Coordination between different government agencies is going to be crucial, said Alexander Minard, vice president and state legislative counsel for NCTA, an American broadband and television trade association. He said that in past funding programs, some counties and cities across the country have secured funding for broadband, so local governments need to make sure they don’t duplicate where they allocate funding for infrastructure. .
  3. There will be pockets without broadband access that are close to areas with existing infrastructure. Minard says an efficient and cost-effective way to connect these areas would be to get surrounding internet service providers, or ISPs, to “step out,” meaning extending their coverage to reach neighboring pockets without broadband. It would be cheaper than creating entirely new broadband infrastructure networks, he said. This may not have happened in the past because “the economy didn’t work” for providers, but now they could be incentivized with “a little funding”.
  4. Communities should determine what their priorities are in terms of broadband deployment, the panelists said. The funding is “technology neutral,” meaning it does not favor fiber optic cables or fixed wireless, they said. They added that communities will also be able to decide which provider best suits their preferences.
  5. Washington could allocate some of the advertising capital to the CPA, which provides low-income homes with assistance with broadband bills. Minard said the program is not yet fully subscribed. Panelists say there must be credible institutions disseminating information for the program so that it is not perceived as a fraud. “Free broadband sounds too good to be true,” Minard said.
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