For Nils Johnson, accessing the internet for work requires driving down a hill and pointing his vehicle toward a data antenna to obtain a signal.
Johnson, who lives south of Chewelah, had internet at home via a Verizon hotspot, which provided access to Zoom meetings, email and Netflix. That service disappeared in November, and Johnson is unable to work out of his office in town because he is caring for his children, who are learning from home as a result of COVID-19 school closures.
Communication is imperative for Johnson, who transports local produce to food pantries, grocery stores and gas stations as an agriculture extension coordinator for Washington State University’s Stevens County Extension.
“I’m used to working out of my vehicle, but this is taking it to a whole new level,” he said.
Johnson is among many residents in rural communities nationwide with limited or nonexistent internet access because of the lack of infrastructure and cost of installing fiber optics or cell towers.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, which forced most employees to work from home and schools to shift to online learning to help stem the spread of COVID-19, has placed even more emphasis on the digital divide in rural areas.
“Now, with the stay-at-home order, everybody is using Zoom, so most times I can’t download email until 10:30 at night,” Johnson said, referring to the increase in network traffic amid the coronavirus pandemic. “Last night, I was trying to engage in a text conversation with a 10-minute delay. So far, the voice signal is fine, thanks to the fact that I have an antenna and amplifier in my house.”
The lack of broadband access in rural communities is “a long-term problem and not an easy fix,” said Debra Hansen, director for WSU’s Stevens County Extension, and facilitator of the Stevens County and Spokane Tribe Broadband Action Team.
“I think with COVID-19, it has really raised everybody’s awareness of (the lack of broadband access) because you can’t apply for unemployment benefits and housing assistance,” she said. “All those things – we’ve been talking about for years.”
Although Chewelah, Colville and Kettle Falls in Stevens County have broadband access, a majority of Stevens County residents live in areas where internet is inconsistent and limited. Some students have to drive 20 miles to download homework from area schools, Hansen said.
When the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order forced schools to shut down during the pandemic, it put Johnson in a predicament trying to figure out how his children will complete schoolwork online.
“We are limited to whatever paper homework comes home,” he said. “It’s a very tough situation, especially for kids that have no access to schoolwork, or people that need access to internet for doing their work.”
The Stevens County Library District, which provides broadband internet at eight libraries, has opened up Wi-Fi access, allowing residents to obtain a signal from their cars to attend Zoom meetings or download school assignments.
“We are trying to see if there are other places where we can set up that type of access,” said Hansen, adding the broadband action team is looking into installing Wi-Fi hotspots at fire districts or Grange halls.
Inslee signed a law last year that established a state broadband office charged with developing and improving internet access to support education, health care and economic development in rural communities.
The state is “aggressively pursuing options” for increasing Wi-Fi hotspot capabilities in underserved communities, said Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office.
Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the state broadband office began mapping and identifying areas with internet service gaps. It’s working with Chris Reykdal, the Washington state superintendent of public instruction, to collect data from students through internet speed tests.
The broadband office also is working with Washington state librarian Cindy Aden and WSU – which has extension offices in every county – to discuss how people can connect to broadband during the pandemic.
Internet providers, such as Comcast and CenturyLink, have adopted or expanded low-income broadband programs and eliminated data caps during the oubreak.
Lack of infrastructure
Rural communities, such as Stevens County, lack internet access in areas, in part, because broadband mapping is inaccurate, Hansen said.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., introduced the Broadband Data Improvement Act in 2019 to improve the broadband mapping process. Elements of the bill were signed into law in March, allowing federal agencies and private industries to target improvements in areas that need broadband.
The state broadband office has set up an internet speed test for people to assess connectivity. Data collected from the speed tests will help the state understand which areas to focus on for broadband deployment, Elliott said.
The Stevens County and Spokane Tribe Broadband Action Team will pilot the first effort to collect speed test data.
Broadband is primarily a private investment and it’s difficult to make a business case to internet service providers to deploy in remote areas, because it’s expensive to build towers and lay fiber. If communities can show there are enough people living in the area through mapping, it opens up opportunity for grants that could support broadband infrastructure, Hansen said.
The Federal Communications Commission established the $20 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund this year to expand rural broadband. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also offering $600 million in loans and grants to build broadband infrastructure in rural areas.
A future challenge will be to scale infrastructure to meet a growing demand for bandwidth in the state, Elliott said.
Internet service providers made significant investments in infrastructure that supports internet download speeds of 10 megabits per second with upload speeds of 1 megabit per second, he said.
However, internet download speeds below 25 megabits per second with upload speeds of 3 megabits per second is considered underserved, he added.
State legislation requires all business and residences in the state to have access to the 25 mbps/3 mbps platform by 2024.
“We need to ensure we are investing in technology throughout the state that will allow us to be forward thinking for decades, not the next few years,” Elliott said.
Creating a broadband hub
Harrington, a community of more than 400 residents in Lincoln County, became a model for do-it-yourself rural internet.
In 2012, Harrington’s library received a high-speed fiber internet connection as a result of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The Lincoln County Public Development Authority, in an effort to spur business development, partnered with the library’s internet service provider in 2016 to extend gigabit broadband coverage in downtown Harrington.
Former Harrington Mayor Justin Slack and wife, Heather, moved from Seattle to the rural community in 2014 in search of a quieter area to raise their family.
The couple purchased a vacant building in downtown Harrington in 2016 and transformed it into The Post & Office, which includes a coffee shop and co-working space.
The co-working space allows Justin to continue telecommuting for his job with a Seattle-based bank. It has also become a community hub for residents and travelers stopping by to check email.
The Slacks’ aim for the Post & Office to be a catalyst for growth in the community by attracting telecommuters wanting to keep their corporate jobs while living in a rural area, Heather said.
Although Harrington offers broadband internet in its downtown core, it can be tricky for residents living on the outskirts to obtain service, she said.
“Rural areas get left behind because there’s not a lot of people here, which is unfortunate,” Heather said. “Being connected online is important these days. Those areas that can’t be online are isolated in so many ways. It really sets communities back by not being able to offer a basic resource to their community.”
Internet service is expanding in Harrington, but at a slow pace, she added.
“We are in the same boat as other communities, but we are one step ahead because we have broadband already here,” Heather said. “The next step is to filter it out to some individual homes. That is just the beginning of what we need.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.