Editorial: Too few have Internet access; it will change

By the Herald Editorial Board

In the last two years of pandemic life, we have had to come to grips with workarounds and new strategies to accomplish our routine tasks, and many of them – work, school, groceries and other purchases, entertainment. even a doctor’s appointment – a correct internet connection is required.

For most of us, it’s an almost invisible connection; something we don’t think about much, until the bill comes due or the service is interrupted. For others, this connection is minimal or nonexistent.

And when it’s not available, another workaround was needed: our public libraries.

Sno-Isle Libraries, even before the pandemic, has long seen its share of students and adults turn to the system’s network of 23 community libraries for use of computers and other resources. But it was also a hub for something as basic as internet service itself during the pandemic, says Sno-Isle executive director Lois Langer Thompson.

Sno-Isle, along with lending laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to provide internet connections at home and at work, has also become a default internet service provider – indoors during library hours or in its parking lots after hours – to allow residents to connect to the Internet.

“You hear these stories,” Langer Thompson said last week. “We asked a man to bring his office computer because he didn’t have internet at home” and needed a connection to run his home business.

In a pinch, it’s a service Langer Thompson says she’s happy Sno-Isle can provide, especially during the pandemic.

“We’ve done a lot with laptops and hot spots. And we are good at providing the necessary services, ”she said. “But we really can’t be the foundation of Internet service. ”

The reality, however, is that – even as comparable as broadband Internet service is to a basic utility, like electricity or water – too many residents of Snohomish County, State of Washington and the rest of the country are either underserved or unable to obtain or afford an Internet connection at home.

Connecting the unserved and underserved was at the center of a recent round table hosted by Sno-Isle in its Monroe library and attended by United States Representative Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., Langer Thompson and parents, students, teachers and others from more rural areas of the county, including Darrington, where internet service is lacking.

The roundtable did not reveal any surprises, DelBene said in an interview last week; much of the lack of equitable access to the internet has been known for years, but the pandemic has removed any doubt about the need for these connections and what must follow in the years to come.

“Here we are; I’m one of the biggest tech hubs in my district, but within an hour’s drive there are places that don’t have broadband or cell service,” DelBene said.

Some counties and states have been working on these issues for some time. Snohomish County has assembled a Broadband Action Team last year to bring together officials, cities, school districts, state agencies and others to address service gaps and encouraged people to participate in the state Department of Commerce’s efforts to better map the availability of the Internet throughout the state.

To date, nearly 44,000 have taken part in the statewide survey that determined the upload and download speeds of each participant’s address. This survey found that nearly 6% of state residents did not have internet service at home, while nearly 41% had a service that offered download speeds from zero to less than 10 megabits per second. The Federal Communications Commission considers 25 Mbps to be the minimum standard for download speeds.

The mapping survey found that 6.7% of residents of Snohomish County did not have high-speed internet service, while 35% reported speeds of zero to 10 mbps.

This cartographic survey, who continues, will be crucial as the grants roll out, including a total of $ 65 billion that was incorporated into the bipartisan infrastructure and investment law that Congress passed in November.

The infrastructure package established a range of direct funding programs and grants to states, tribes and others that will help finance physical infrastructure, but also assistance programs to make internet service more affordable.

Washington state, like every other state, will see a baseline of at least $ 100 million from the infrastructure package, DelBene said, with more funding to follow once the FAC has finished its own broadband map update.

This extra money will be needed.

The Washington State Public Works Council last month announced $ 44.6 million in grants for 15 broadband construction projects in unserved and underserved communities across the state. For that amount of money, 29 different projects totaling $ 90 million in funding requests, exceeding available funds by 109%, the Washington State Wire reported. Another $ 13 million in publicly funded broadband construction loans are slated for this spring.

In addition, the Washington State Broadband Office announced $ 7.4 million in grants for “digital navigation services” to help new Internet users get and afford connections; funding went to the Community Health Network of Washington Community Health Centers to help low-income patients; the Equity in Education Coalition, Goodwill and the Seattle Housing Authority.

Federal and state investments are coming, but as rural electrification in the 1930s, “that expanded access will take some time,” DelBene said, as grants and other funding programs are administered. Yet the necessary investments that will extend broadband Internet service to more Americans are defined.

“It’s the foundation of everything we do,” said DelBene. “How we communicate, work, access telehealth and more. ”

And this is fundamental not only for our daily life, but also for our livelihoods and the future of our children.

The barriers to access faced by rural communities and individuals in suburban and urban areas can begin to fall and make broadband service as easy and reliable as flipping a light switch.

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