Pandemic Underscores Need for Broadband Access Throughout Washington

Posted on 12/31/20 by Chris Thomas

It might be the wires or the modem or the frequent high winds in eastern Washington. Helen Burke, 76, doesn’t know why her internet service is unreliable. It just is.

As a resident of rural Pomeroy living with a disability, she depends on being able to connect. 

“I use it to stream my TV and music. I use it to play games and for Facebook and email. I pay all my bills and do my shopping online,” Burke said. “I do everything online.”

During the coronavirus pandemic, that includes attending church and meetings of the local citizens boards she serves on online via Zoom. But she has to deal with outages and long waits when calling her internet service provider about a problem.

Even so, Burke is lucky. In a state that’s home to some of the world’s most successful technology companies, just over 735,000 Washingtonians have no internet service. Among low-income households, 4 in 10 have no online access.  

AARP Washington is advocating for change, working with the state on “shovel-ready” projects to address the lack of high-speed internet service in many areas.

“We also want to look at how to provide additional low-cost internet options for older adults on fixed incomes,” said Cathy MacCaul, AARP Washington’s advocacy director. 

A mapping project is the state’s latest attempt to pinpoint broadband gaps and capability. People can take a one-minute online survey at broadband.wa.gov.

Supporting legislation

The dearth of accurate information frustrates state Rep. Mia Gregerson (D), a legislator from South King County who leads a coalition of more than three dozen advocates seeking to expand broadband service and achieve digital equity and literacy.

“We need to make it fair,” Gregerson said. “People on that last mile of fiber-optic cable shouldn’t have to suffer because they’re rural.” 

Gregerson’s Internet Access Crisis Team has been instrumental in supporting technology programs and the Washington State Broadband Office, created by legislation in 2019 within the Department of Commerce.

The state is taking aggressive action, said Lisa Brown, Commerce Department director. 

“When we’re in an area and find out there’s not adequate connectivity, we immediately work with existing providers to figure out if they will fill the gap,” Brown said. “If they won’t, then we work on an alternate solution.” 

She cited a pilot SpaceX satellite project that brought internet to the Hoh Tribe on the Olympic Peninsula, and a statewide network of more than 300 drive-up Wi-Fi hot spots for people to use to access services during the COVID-19 crisis. 

Gregerson acknowledged the state’s effort but said more  needs to be done. 

AARP is backing several proposals that lawmakers may consider when they return to Olympia this month. They include a call center with one-on-one tech support, hot spots set up at community centers and free or subsidized broadband plans for lower-income older adults. 

“The lack of consistent, affordable internet is becoming a paramount concern,” MacCaul said. “Technology is a tool to help address the adverse effects of social isolation, anxiety and depression caused by the pandemic.”

Learn more at aarp.org/wa or call 866-227-7457.

Chris Thomas is a writer living in Seattle.

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