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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Pierce County names worst places for high-speed internet access. Now it’s time to fix it

By Matt Driscoll News Tribune

TACOMA – It’s a problem Mark Cockerill knows all too well. As a Key Peninsula resident for more than 15 years, he’s experienced it with frustrating regularity, he says, and he’s seen the impact it’s had on many of his neighbors.

Whether it’s kids trying to complete their homework, parents trying to work from home or seniors trying to schedule important medical appointments, getting online can be more than a headache, Cockerill told The News Tribune.

Sometimes, on the Key Peninsula, it can be downright impossible, he says.

“It affects everyday life, the things that people take for granted,” Cockerill said. “The further south you go, the more rural you get, the worse it gets, and the frustration is just phenomenal.”

Cockerill, a retired programmer and software consultant, moved to the Key Peninsula with his wife Marie in 2005.

Earlier this week the Pierce County Council acknowledged what he’s long known: Many of his neighbors have some of the very worst internet access in all of Pierce County.

The County Council’s admission came in the form of an ordinance likely to be approved next month that would designate five “Broadband Development Districts” across the county.

An important step in the slow chug of government progress, the five districts – two of them along the Key Peninsula and three more in some of the most southeastern corners of the county – are where Pierce County’s long-running effort to dramatically improve internet access will begin, according to County Council Chair Derek Young.

The most encouraging news of all?

Young – who has spent more than seven years on the council and just as long talking about the need for the county to take a proactive role expanding broadband in rural communities – said he’s hopeful that projects bringing high-speed broadband to these areas will “break ground” by the time he leaves office at the end of the year.

For the sake of Cockerill and the thousands of rural Pierce County residents like him, let’s hope he’s right.

In the year 2022, particularly after the coronavirus pandemic made it crystal clear, there’s simply no excuse for so many people to be wallowing at dial-up speeds at home or forced to drive their children to the parking lot of a fast food restaurant with Wi-Fi to complete their schoolwork.

“We are beginning in the areas that are completely without access to high speed broadband, and from there we’ll start working back into the areas that are under-served,” Young said.

In addition to areas in north and south Key Peninsula, the County Council’s proposed ordinance also identifies three more Broadband Development Districts.

One includes a large swath of rural Pierce County largely south of Buckley, stretching toward state Route 162 and Orting.

Another calls out the Nisqually region, northwest of Eatonville.

The third identifies a slice of land near Alder Lake.

According to Young, interest in bringing high-speed broadband to these areas dates back many years. In 2019, an independent evaluation of internet access in Pierce County highlighted the problem, finding that many rural communities lack adequate access to broadband. That same year, the County Council passed a resolution identifying broadband internet as “essential infrastructure.”

Most important of all, in 2021 the County Council allocated $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to the expansion of broadband access. As The News Tribune reported at the time, the council’s plan calls for the county to use the money – along with state and federal grants – to incentivize (and essentially subsidize) private broadband expansion in the areas of Pierce County that need it most.

While Pierce County’s current plan calls for focusing on incentivizing improvements in the five Broadband Development Districts first, there are a number of areas across Pierce County that would benefit from better access to high-speed broadband internet, Young said.

Overall, Young said that the problem is so pronounced in many rural areas – and the need for internet access is so great – that the county had no choice but to step in.

“I think that we’ve reached a point where the internet is utility. … The reality is that it’s become a necessary component of our lives,” Young said. “I think this is a bipartisan issue, because if you represent a rural area, you know it’s a problem.”

On Thursday, Cockerill said he’s encouraged by the progress Pierce County seems to be making toward delivering high-speed broadband to the Key Peninsula. Much like Young, improving internet access in this corner of the county has long been a goal of his, including while serving as a director on the Key Peninsula Community Council.

Still, Cockerill said, there’s no time to waste – and the job won’t be done until his neighbors have the same access that so many others across the county already enjoy.

He’s exactly right.

“People here,they’re not on an equal footing with other people in more urban or suburban areas, because they don’t have the internet connection,” Cockerill said.

“This is way past due.”