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How Washington state could use federal infrastructure money to close the digital divide – GeekWire

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Deploying broadband throughout Washington state has been at the top of local lawmakers’ minds for years. The state legislature enacted a bill in 2019, which recognized that access to reliable internet connection was a critical issue for residents.

Now, a “once-in-a-generation” funding package for broadband infrastructure and payment assistance is on its way to Washington. 

The state is set to receive at least $100 million from the Infrastructure and Jobs Act that was signed into law in November, which will go toward deploying broadband infrastructure. The state will also receive funding from the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which will provide low-income households up to $30 per month for help paying for broadband bills. And it is also using $145 milion from the American Rescue Plan for broadband deployment.

This funding was a long time coming, said Washington state Rep. Marilyn Strickland at a virtual panel event on Thursday. She added that the pandemic further exposed the digital divide, which describes the inequity faced by those in rural or underprivileged areas that lack access to a reliable internet connection.

Marilyn Strickland.

Access to broadband is more of a utility rather than luxury now, Strickland said. She added that the growing adoption of work-from-home, remote education and telehealth options is creating more of a need than ever for reliable connection. 

The Federal Communications Commission estimates that 14.5 million Americans lack access to broadband. It considers download speeds of 100 megabits per-second and upload speeds of 20 Mbps as minimum requirements for reliable connection. 

On Thursday, Microsoft released a street-by-street map of digital inequity in the country, which shows that access to broadband could actually be worse than what the FCC says it is. In Ferry County, Wash., for example, nearly 97% of residents lack access to broadband, according to Microsoft’s data. 

Microsoft’s new Digital Equity Data Dashboard highlights digital equity gaps in the state.

In a virtual event called “Close the Digital Divide: Opportunity in Fed Infrastructure Package for Washington,” hosted by the Washington Technology Industry Association, leaders in the broadband industry gathered to discuss how the state could best deploy the incoming funding. The state has a goal to provide all residents with high-speed internet access by 2028.

Read on for five main takeaways from that discussion. 

  1. North Carolina is an example of how to select areas to efficiently deploy funds, said Beth Cooley, assistant vice president, state and legislative affairs at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. She said leaders in that state created a metric system to help identify counties that would benefit most from broadband infrastructure investment. Those metrics 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 scorecard for determining where funding is allocated could be applied in Washington, she said.
  2. Coordination amongst the different government agencies is going to be crucial, said Alexander Minard, vice president and state legislative council for NCTA, a U.S. broadband and television trade association. He said that in prior funding programs, there were some counties and cities in the country that got funding for broadband, so local governments need to ensure they are not duplicating where they allocate funds for infrastructure. 
  3. There are going to be pockets that lack broadband access that are close to areas with existing infrastructure. Minard says an efficient and cost-effective way to connect those areas would be to get surrounding internet service providers, or ISPs, to “edge out,” meaning extend their coverage to reach the nearby pockets without broadband. This would be cheaper than creating entirely new broadband infrastructure networks, he said. This might not have happened in the past because the “economics didn’t work” for the providers, but they could now be incentivized with a “little bit of funding.”
  4. Communities should determine what their priorities are in terms of broadband deployment, the panelists said. The funding is “tech-neutral,” meaning it does not favor either fiber optic cables or fixed wireless, they said. They added that communities will also be able to decide which provider will best serve their preferences.
  5. Washington could allocate some of the capital to advertise ACP, which provides low-income homes with broadband bill assistance. Minard said the program is not fully subscribed yet. The panelists say there needs to be credible institutions disseminating the information for the program in order for it not to come off as fraud. “Free broadband seems too good to be true,” Minard said. 

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