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COVID-19

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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Lisa Brown and Russ Elliott: Broadband is critical public infrastructure in the age of COVID-19

russ elliott

As the deep impact of COVID-19 becomes clear, the Washington State Broadband Office is engaged in an unprecedented effort to ensure that everyone in our state is connected. The “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order has focused attention on the crucial role that internet connectivity plays in all of our daily lives.

Depending on where you live, some seniors can’t refill prescriptions, furloughed workers can’t apply for unemployment benefits, small businesses can’t access financial assistance, and students can’t do their homework.

It is absolutely essential for the state and broadband carriers to aim high. We need immediate, emergency solutions for supporting our population, and we must continue to identify and act on ways to bring strong broadband to every community throughout the state in perpetuity.

For a state so rich in technology innovation, we rank near the middle for broadband connectivity. By some estimates, only about one quarter of people in Washington have access to high speed internet and more than 100,000 have no access to wired internet at all.

Access to gigabit speeds is not the most pressing issue when many communities still have insufficient or no broadband at all. Sustaining a resilient economy relies heavily on ensuring adequate, universal internet connections over the coming months and years.

Think about the amount of effort and resources injected into building roads and bridges. We have to put the same priority on broadband. When people are required to stay at home, broadband becomes our critical public infrastructure.

Before this COVID-19 crisis, we started taking steps in the right direction, including pinpoint mapping of internet access and speeds to identify and prioritize areas of concern with gaps in service. Working with Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, we hope to mobilize high school students to help in this crucial data collection effort, asking them to go online to take the speed test at home and encourage others in their communities to do so.

We’re also working with State Librarian Cindy Aden and Washington State University, which has an extension office every county, to discuss actions to help people stay connected right now. One challenge is stress on library wireless access points as more mobile broadband devices are loaned out to students and more people work remotely. We’ve also enlisted several other public and private partners to deploy “drive-up” Wi-Fi hotspots in communities and publish a map of all publicly-available hotspots in the state.

The Federal Communications Commission has asked providers and major trade groups representing carriers around the country to step up. Many are doing so by adopting or expanding low-income broadband programs, relaxing data cap policies and prioritizing the connectivity needs of hospitals, healthcare providers and remote education.

To date, however, broadband infrastructure is not included in federal stimulus funding. We are hopeful that growing realization of this pressing need will be addressed in the fourth stimulus package taking shape in Congress.

The time is now. Just as we respond to emergencies, we can work together through public-private partnerships to bridge the digital divide and create broadband equity going forward.

Washington’s broadband challenge is not just about a few rural communities trying to get connected. This is an “everybody” challenge. No one gets to opt out of supporting highways, water, sewer and other basic public infrastructure in the state of Washington.

From this day forward, broadband needs to be held in equal regard. Broadband is critical infrastructure we need to strengthen communities and our economy.

Lisa Brown is director of the Washington State Department of Commerce. Russ Elliott is director of the Washington State Broadband Office. Communities are urged to participate in the statewide broadband data collection initiative at www.broadband.wa.gov to map access, speeds and gaps in broadband service. For more information or to contact the Washington State Broadband Office please email Russ.elliott@commerce.wa.gov.

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