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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Getting connected: where broadband, rural prosperity and health care intersect

DAVENPORT, Wash. – It is hard to get work done without broadband these days.

From economic development to health care, ensuring that small towns are connected to high-speed internet is vital to their sustainability.

Dr. John Tomkowiak, dean of WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, said during a recent meeting in Davenport that the health care industry relies upon broadband to ensure that the doctors and doctors-in-training at WSU, treating patients in rural communities, have access to internet.

Tomkowiak showed a map of 104 hospitals and clinics that WSU’s medical school is partnering with to train students, noting that students use tablets that contain their core curriculum. For some elements of their coursework, they need to be connected to the internet, he said, emphasizing the need for broadband in rural communities.

The vast majority of physicians use the internet in their daily practice at work for tasks such as cataloging electronic patient records or communicating with patients. Even for emergency care, telemedicine can be used to triage cases, allowing a physician to remotely diagnose based on symptoms.

“Numerous studies show that timely diagnosis in critical injuries can make life-or-death differences,” Tomkowiak said.

Despite what broadband maps and surveys say, not all areas in rural Washington have high-speed access, let alone the internet. And even some communities that are connected have such slow speeds that businesses are affected.

Chewelah Mayor Dorothy Knauss said her town is challenged because some areas have broadband and others don’t. At one time, the golf course could not process credit card transactions because of slow connectivity, she said. So community leaders formed a broadband action team and met with Charter Communications to forge an agreement to install more fiber optic cable. But it’s not always that easy.

Other community leaders shared challenges with adding fiber in the ground because of geographically difficult routes, such as on the Colville Reservation, where rocky terrain can make such work impossible.

Justin Slack, a Seattle transplant and interim mayor of Harrington, shared his town’s story of achieving broadband connectivity in a simple four-block stretch of town. Slack, who works remotely, needed the broadband to do his job. He and his wife created a co-working space and coffee shop so others in Harrington could come work remotely, too.

“If you build it they’ll come, and that’s what happened,” Slack said.

Tomkowiak echoed the same need for physicians to have broadband in order to feel connected, citing health worker shortages in rural areas.

“When you ask them why they don’t serve in those areas it’s because they are the only ones, and they feel isolated,” he said.

Funding for broadband connectivity at a federal and state level is mainly available through loans, with some grants, too. This year, Washington state lawmakers approved a law to create a statewide broadband office that will approve and distribute grant and loan funds to local governments, tribes, public, private and nonprofit entities working together to expand broadband in the state.

The program has $21.5 million available, including $14.5 million for loans and and $7 million for grants. The state will prioritize funding to public-private partnerships, with a focus on underserved areas in the state.

John Flanagan, a policy adviser in Gov. Jay Inslee’s office who worked on the legislation, said access to broadband is only half the problem. Quality and affordability are important, too. He also emphasized that the legislation is intended to bring broadband providers and community members together.

“Broadband is local, only the community involved in the project and the provider will know how to do that project,” he said.

The state’s ambitious broadband connectivity goals are spelled out in the new law.

The most pressing goal set by lawmakers is that by 2024, all Washington businesses and residences have access to high-speed broadband.

In Davenport, leaders from rural counties in Eastern Washington shared stories of students issued school laptops but having no internet at home to do their homework. So students sit outside the library or other free Wi-Fi zones in order to get their work done.

Lisa Brown, the director of the Department of Commerce, said she had visited several counties and found that broadband would help with economic growth, students trying to do their schoolwork and providing access to health care.

“This is essential to the future of our state,” Brown said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.