Commentary: Covid has exposed state’s rural internet gaps

Investments and planning are needed now to extend internet access to all residents in Washington.

By David Parshall / For The Herald

In today’s modern world, access to high-speed, high-quality internet service is essential.

Thanks to tech innovation like 5G internet, Washington is more connected than ever, which has been especially critical during the covid-19 pandemic. These advancements allowed many of us to go to school, do our jobs, attend family gatherings, and even receive medical care online, creating an entirely new economy and way of life.

Despite these triumphs, some Washingtonians have been left out of this new economy and for many of our rural communities, access to fast and reliable internet is still a struggle. Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of rural Americans had home broadband in 2019, compared to nearly 80 percent of suburban Americans. Even worse, in 2019 almost one quarter of Americans without home broadband listed a lack of high-quality internet availability (or any internet at all) as a reason. Internet access should not be reserved for those living in big cities and tech hubs.

High-quality internet access is the foundation for important new technologies that can benefit rural Americans. Telemedicine, for remote diagnosis and medical treatment, ensures that rural patients have access to quality care and specialist doctors no matter where they live. Smart cities and towns with modern electrical grids can help prevent power outages during extreme weather, which is especially important for people living far away from emergency services. Without reliable internet access, our rural communities miss out on an entire world of innovation.

Thankfully, leaders in Washington, D.C., are working to expand rural broadband infrastructure and increase funding so that all state residents can benefit from these advancements. Sen. Maria Cantwell led the charge to include crucial telehealth and tribal broadband subsidies in the second covid-19 relief bill, and is now fighting for even more funding to expand rural broadband and middle-mile infrastructure. Furthermore, in his plan for rural America, President Biden is pushing for rural broadband funding as a key component to widespread internet access.

Our state will need to invest billions of dollars in innovative solutions if we want to bring broadband to all our rural communities. Luckily, legislators are exploring creative solutions to bridge this digital divide like allowing utilities to build middle-mile cables along existing utility power lines and selling this to internet service providers. Cost-effective tactics like this could maximize efficiency and encourage companies to invest in more rural broadband.

On top of the work happening in Washington, D.C., we will need an all-of-the-above solution to bring broadband to every rural Washingtonian. Luckily, technology companies are willing and able to help. Companies like Ligado are planning to utilize Open RAN technology to build a national 5G network with unused spectrum, allowing hardware and software from any vendor to work with each other so that rural areas have more broadband options. Companies such as Amazon and SpaceX have launched plans to bring broadband to more Americans using satellites, which will also increase industry competition and improve internet service quality.

By leveraging innovation from technology companies and working to secure more rural broadband subsidies in the public sector, we can bridge this digital divide once and for all. All Washingtonians, whether living in big cities like Seattle or small towns like Darrington, deserve reliable and high-quality internet access.

David Parshall lives i Lynnwood. He is a Univesity of Washington alumnus with degrees in political science and education. He is a state certified teacher and helps with his father’s small gardening business in rural Snohomish County in his spare time.

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