Infrastructure package can help bridge the digital divide in the North West with more broadband internet the ‘key to everyday life’

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WASHINGTON – Advocates hope the infrastructure package passed by Congress last Friday will make major strides in bridging the North West’s digital divide by investing billions of dollars in improving digital equity, the expanding broadband access and addressing accessibility issues for the citizens of Washington and Idaho.

The bill was passed with bipartisan support after months of negotiation, and it spends $ 65 billion on broadband infrastructure. Of that, $ 42.45 billion will provide grants directly to states for various broadband projects, while $ 14.2 billion will help low-income Americans pay for Internet access, providing them with Internet access. $ 30 coupons each month.

For low-income families, “that additional monthly payment [toward internet access] can be a budget breaker, ”so handing out grants will help families maintain critical internet connections, said Ann Campbell, Washington state’s broadband infrastructure programs manager.

According to White House estimates, Washington and Idaho will each receive a minimum of $ 100 million to improve broadband access across the state. Some 19% of Washingtonians and 25% of Idahoans will be eligible for monthly Internet access grants.

The grants are an extension of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a temporary program put in place to help families struggling with internet access during the pandemic. Although the grants will technically be lowered from $ 50 to $ 30 per month, the new program will provide assistance on a more permanent basis.

Another key aspect of the infrastructure package is the Digital Equity Act, a law that Washington Senator Patty Murray first introduced in 2019. The law includes $ 2.75 billion to provide individuals and communities with the skills, support and resources to make full use of Internet access. Degree. This could mean providing laptops for students or digital literacy classes for the elderly.

In an interview Thursday, Murray said the pandemic had exposed existing broadband access problems, citing conversations she’s had with Washingtonians who could only get online by going to a library or a McDonald’s.

“I think it’s really important to think of broadband internet the way we do for running water or electricity,” Murray said. “For everyone in our state and across the country, a reliable internet connection means you can get an education, access healthcare, or grow your business. “

Campbell expressed his enthusiasm for the digital equity element of the infrastructure bill, adding, “This is the fundamental element upon which broadband infrastructure planning rests. “

Murray joined Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell and Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch voting to pass the infrastructure package. However, most Republican lawmakers voted against the bill, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Rep. Russ Fulcher, whose district includes northern Idaho.

The Northwest has certain characteristics that make it difficult to expand broadband access, experts said.

Communities are often very far from each other in Washington, which “creates a challenge when trying to build a broadband network across the state that connects with the rest of the nation to access all of those corners of the earth.” our state, ”Campbell mentioned.

Idaho faces similar challenges, said Eric Forsch, director of broadband development for the Idaho Department of Commerce.

“You have areas where there are mountains, rivers, trees, valleys. All of these things are barriers to putting in place more infrastructure in a cost-effective manner, ”said Forsch.

The infrastructure package includes $ 2 billion in funding for the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, a program run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Department of Commerce, which provides grants to expand broadband over tribal lands.

Valerie Fast Horse, IT director of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said there are many areas of the tribe that do not have broadband access at all.

“They are in no man’s land. They can’t access the Internet wirelessly, ”said Fast Horse, adding that the goal is to use federal funding to expand the networks they already have in place.

The Federal Communications Commission’s existing broadband card is notoriously inaccurate. The Verge produced a more comprehensive map in May based on Microsoft’s data on actual internet connection speeds in each county.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the need for reliable high-speed internet access as many students have switched to online learning and many adults have worked from home.

“I think COVID has brought out a lot the known, but perhaps not well understood, fact that broadband is the key to everyday life, from schooling to work to communicating with your loved ones,” said Campbell.

With the use of multi-person Zoom calls, the “standard” for Internet access is often no longer suitable for larger households, Forsch said.

Fast Horse said a family raised concerns with him last year because only one person in their household could use the internet at a time, forcing family members to take turns online for school and the work. The tribe expanded their existing network to help the family boost their broadband, but Fast Horse said not all tribes might be so lucky, especially if they didn’t already have engineering drawings ready. for new broadband projects.

“If they give decent deadlines that shouldn’t be a problem, but if they give really strict and short deadlines I can see struggling tribes,” said Fast Horse.

While an increase in federal funding creates more opportunities, the logistics of using that funding equitably also creates potential challenges, Campbell said.

“It will be exciting and empowering to deploy this in a way that is accessible to the wide range of local governments and nonprofits that we have in our state and their varied needs,” said Campbell.

Courtney Degen is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and writes for The Spokesman-Review as a reporting intern.

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