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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Officials say new broadband system in Spokane County will be a boost to rural communities

While communities in southern Spokane County wait for hardwired internet access, the regional broadband development authority has managed to provide a temporary solution that improves remote learning, economic development and emergency responses in rural areas.

Broadlinc, the regional public development authority, touted the benefits of its eight Cellular on Wheels towers placed throughout south Spokane County Friday morning in Spangle. A group of elected officials, community members and first responders gathered in fire station 36 of Spokane County Fire District 3 to mark the end of a state-funded $4.6 million pilot program aimed at improving internet access for rural county residents.

Legislators in Olympia and Washington, D.C., have invested heavily in recent years toward improving internet access and extending existing fiber networks to rural communities. Washington is expected to receive around $1.23 billion from the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, which was funded by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

When word spread about the imminent funding, the Spokane County Commission began considering what could be done to bring broadband to the county’s underserved areas referred to as “digital deserts.” The county ranks fifth in the nation for the most unserved locations, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Commissioner Mary Kuney said the board recognized the inability to connect was an issue important to several communities, municipalities and agencies, and wanted those different parties to address the challenge together through a public development authority – Broadlinc.

It’s a unique and different approach compared to how the conversation around broadband access is playing out in other areas of the state, Kuney said. Spokane County has received national recognition for their approach and efforts, including an award from the National Association of Counties.

“A lot of counties are doing it themselves or the cities are looking at it,” said Kuney, who now chairs the board overseeing Broadlinc. “This is where we’re unique, in really coming together as a group to look at Spokane County, to do the best that we can for our citizens, to make sure that we get that digital access out there for everybody.”

Kuney noted a reliable internet connection is an instrumental tool for students of all ages, for business owners looking to expand their customer base or accept electronic payments, and first responders who need access to information when responding to a crime, fire or medical event.

The crux of Broadlinc’s pilot program was to see the viability of the retractable telescoping towers for providing internet access on an interim basis, while communities across the state wait for the digital infrastructure to be built.

“Just as we drive on roads that were built for everyone to traverse, we’re now realizing that our rural communities lack the digital roads to traverse the internet,” said Broadlinc Executive Director Ariane Schmidt.

Funding has been allocated, but it can take years to do the work of bringing a physical connection to remote or rural areas, which is what led Schmidt to pitch the pilot program to the Washington State Broadband Office to secure funding.

Schmidt believes it will trigger a statewide domino effect. Erika Henry, deputy director of the state broadband office, said as much at the event. She thanked Schmidt for the many ideas Schmidt and the authority have brought to the office that are “changing how we’re able to look at bringing broadband to rural communities.”

“It really is so meaningful for all of Washington, because these models will be shared or replicated as we distribute $1.23 billion in federal funding over the next several years,” Henry said.

Since it launched in May 2023, the pilot program brought internet access to around 100 households at an onboarding cost of $30. Tekoa-based WiFiber will continue to provide internet services through the towers moving forward, but users will now be charged market rates.

West Plains companies New J and Peak Industries designed the towers, which range from 65 to 120 feet tall and fold into a compact trailer that can be towed from location to location. They are secured to large concrete blocks when stood up to ensure they do not topple under strong winds or adverse weather.

The designers have received their own national recognition for their work on the project, with a broadband industry consortium known as OnGo Alliance awarding New J for their efforts on the project earlier this year.

New J co-founder Ben Ealey said one of the most important takeaways for the public regarding the pilot program is that it is a viable, short term solution for connectivity, in the case of an emergency or as they wait for services to reach their area.

“It allows them to be safe. They can educate their kids from home. They can work from home,” Ealey said. “On the knowledge side, that really makes for a more vibrant elder community going from the digital desert to this little oasis. So it’s a matter of knowing that this type of approach exists today.”

One of the eight towers was placed just outside the fire station in Spangle where it provides a connection radius of around 4 miles, said Broadlinc spokesman Andy Wittwer.

Fire District 3 Chief Cody Rohrbach said the towers have been instrumental in improving their response in the more remote corners of the district, and it will be even more vital as wildfire season ramps up.

Through technology affixed to the station’s trucks, ambulances and engines that communicate with the towers, firefighters now have access to information that will be vital for evacuations and coordinated responses when the time comes.

Rohrbach said that includes information like property lines and associated owners, where other units are located and any updates that may occur on a call.

Dustin Flock, a division chief for the district, added that it also will free up critical air space on the radios during large events like a wildfire.

“Now we’re going to be able to have that information from the dispatch and see where all those resources are located,” Flock said. “That allows us to stay off the air asking dispatch potentially for information that we can just sit here and read right on our tablet, and see kind of where the response is in real time.”

County Commissioner Al French, who represents the communities served by the pilot program, said the pandemic highlighted the importance of a reliable internet connection, which he believes is essentially a utility nowadays.

Communities without a reliable connection were isolated, faced a heap of challenges accessing medical care, education opportunities and community resources, French said. The pandemic was a motivating factor to ensure those communities wouldn’t be left behind again in the event of an emergency.

“There is a saying that you should never squander a disaster,” French said. “What that means is that when bad things happen, take advantage and build back better.”

French thanked the many authority members, leaders and partners who made the program and Broadlinc’s ongoing efforts possible.

“That takes vision and it takes the courage to push the limits,” French said. “And that’s what we’re doing here. We’re pushing the limits and redefining what it means to have internet access throughout the county.”