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Editorial: Help map county’s internet dead spots

With the possibility growing for infrastructure funding, we need to know where service is weakest.

By The Herald Editorial Board

For all of what we’ve lived with — from true economic hardships to irritating annoyances — covid-19 has allowed us to better see the inequities many experience.

That’s particularly been the case regarding internet service. No longer a luxury, something many could do without, fast and reliable broadband internet is now a utility in the most basic sense of that word.

And it’s a service that is denied to too many in Snohomish County where broadband access has been slow to arrive from commercial providers in rural and other communities, as it has elsewhere in the state and the nation.

The county’s internet dead spots have been a subject of discussion for years in the north end of the county, said County Coucilmember Nate Nehring, who represents the District 1 cities of Arlington, Darrington, Granite Falls, Marysville, Stanwood and unincorporated north county communities. But covid removed all doubt regarding the need in his district and elsewhere in the county because public health precautions throughout the past year forced families to rely more heavily on internet connections for schooling, working for home, medical appointments and purchases of daily needs.

“We need to expand access for reliable, high-speed internet,” Nehring said.

In some communities — and not just in rural areas — those connections are slow at best, if they exist at all.

Nehring, County Councilmember Sam Low, who represents District 2, and County Executive Dave Somers, recently called together a Broadband Action Team focused on the need to expand broadband access. The effort reached out to state lawmakers, city officials in the two most-affected council districts, as well as school districts, the Port of Everett, the Snohomish County Public Utility District, Economic Alliance Snohomish County, internet providers and others to foster discussions and planning.

Among the team’s first efforts is to ask all county residents to take a test.

But don’t worry; this is a test you can’t fail, even if your internet connection does.

The county team is asking people to test their internet speed to help map areas of the county where service is available or lacking and what the average data speed is for those online. The Broadband Access Team hopes to have 10,000 in Snohomish County respond to the test and survey.

The survey is offered by the state Department of Commerce, and so far has collected information from more than 33,000 internet users across the state.

Following the survey, the site shows a map of previous responses, marking points with varying levels of download speeds — the rate at which web pages load on a computer or smartphone, for example. Very low speeds of 0 to 10 megabits per second are marked as red dots; with yellow, light green and green for higher speeds. Black dots — and there are a few in Snohomish County — show no service.

Of about 2,500 responses in the county so far, there’s a fair share of green dots in the county’s larger cities, with red dots predominating in rural areas, but also in areas some might not expect, including Lake Stevens, part of Low’s district.

Each dot added will build on the effectiveness of the mapping project, especially as solutions and funding are sought at the state and national level, Nehring said.

Some of that help might not be far off. President Biden last week released his American Jobs Act, a $2 trillion infrastructure package that includes about $100 billion in funding to improve broadband access across the country.

That’s funding that U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene, who represents the state’s 1st Congressional District, supports because it can help provide the physical infrastructure that can bring broadband into the county’s rural and more mountainous communities. Biden’s broadband outreach would work primarily with government agencies, tribal governments, nonprofits and cooperatives to expand the reach of infrastructure.

But there’s also support, she said, where the infrastructure exists but the costs of broadband services are not affordable for some families, a barrier notably experienced by families needing service for remote learning and work, telehealth appointments and more.

The Snohomish Public Utility District also is counting on the data the broadband survey can provide, said Kevin Johnston, the PUD’s information technology and cyber security official and its broadband specialist.

“We’re trying to wrap our minds around the questions, and that has to do with understanding what the problem looks like around the county,” he said.

Some PUDs around the state are taking an active role by providing their own infrastructure and leasing it to retail internet providers, an authority state lawmakers granted in 2000. One PUD in Kitsap County was granted authority in 2018 for a pilot project to provide limited retail service itself where there were no existing providers.

Johnston said the PUD can’t commit to any solutions now; what works in one county may not be a good fit for Snohomish County, he said. But the PUD is supporting the work of the county broadband team and the effort to map access speeds and the availability of internet service.

The effort to provide better internet access has similarities to another national infrastructure project, the Rural Electrification Act of the late-1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt’s order, later adopted by Congress, helped expand the nation’s electrical grid into rural areas by channeling federal funding through cooperatives and public utilities.

As rural electrification provided a jolt to the nation’s economy during the Depression, the funding outlined in the American Jobs Act can help build the internet infrastructure that is needed in all American communities, funding on which public and private partnerships can expand better service.

Taking a one-minute test can help show where that effort is needed most.

Test your speed

To test your internet speed and take a brief survey go to tinyurl.com/WADOCspeedtest. You’ll be asked for your address and your monthly cost for any internet service. You can use a generalized address if you do not wish to use your exact street address. The test takes about a minute.

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