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Tackling the Digital Divide in the Pacific Northwest

March 25, 2016 by NTIA

As the headquarters for a number of technology industry pioneers, Seattle has a thriving digital economy. But even in this high-tech hub, 93,000 residents – or 15 percent of the city’s population – don’t subscribe to the Internet.

And across the state of Washington and the wider Pacific Northwest, there are still rural communities that lack access to adequate broadband. The problem is particularly acute for many Native American communities, including the Makah, Quinault and other tribes of the Olympic Peninsula and the Spokane and Colville Federated Tribes east of the Cascade Mountains.

From urban centers such as Seattle and Portland, Ore., to rural towns such as Toledo, Wash., civic leaders, industry officials and community activists are making progress in narrowing the digital divide. But the job is not done. That’s the picture that emerged from a daylong regional broadband workshop that NTIA hosted in partnership with the non-profit Next Century Cities in Seattle this week.

The event was the sixth in an ongoing series of regional workshops that NTIA is organizing as part of our BroadbandUSA program, which provides free hands-on technical assistance, toolkits, guides, webinars and other support to help communities expand local broadband deployment and adoption.

The Seattle workshop brought together roughly 250 stakeholders – including local, state and federal officials, tribal leaders, industry representatives and community activists – to study broadband challenges facing the Pacific Northwest, explore potential solutions and examine success stories from Washington and surrounding states.

Overall, Internet adoption rates in the Pacific Northwest are above national levels. New data from NTIA’s Digital Nation survey of Internet usage – based on Census data collected in July of 2015 – show that 79 percent of Washington State residents, 80 percent of Oregon residents and 81 percent of Idaho residents were online last year. That compares with 75 percent of all Americans. Still, roughly 2.5 million people across the three states didn’t use the Internet. Those who are not online consistently say they don’t see the relevance, or simply can’t afford it.

This week’s workshop showcased a range of efforts to close those gaps, including projects funded by NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and State Broadband Initiative, which invested more than $4 billion to expand broadband access and adoption and map broadband availability nationwide.

Northwest Open Access Network, or NoaNet, highlighted the role of public utilities in providing broadband to local communities across Washington State. Noanet, a consortium of 10 public utility districts that provides wholesale telecom services, used nearly $139 million in BTOP funding to expand its high-speed network by more than 1,200 fiber miles, connect 300 schools, libraries and other anchors, provide new access to 16 last-mile providers and increase speeds for another 34. Today, NoaNet operates a 3,300-mile network that delivers broadband speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second. 

Sandy, Ore., officials said the city can hardly keep up with demand after launching a municipal fiber network 22 months ago. With a 50 percent take rate at launch and 10-15 new sign-ups every week, there is currently a three-month wait to get connected.  SandyNet network was financed with a $7.5 million revenue bond. It offers speeds of up to a gigabit thanks to a $7.8 million BTOP grant that went to the County of Clackamas, Ore., to build a dark fiber network to link local communities like Sandy to the Internet backbone.

And ToledoTel offered proof that small, family-owned local phone companies can bring advanced technology to rural communities. The company has built out fiber-to-the-home service in its own service territory, and has partnered with neighboring public utility districts to bring fiber to the home to surrounding areas.

The workshop also underscored that digital inclusion is about more than just providing access. It’s about teaching people how to use the Internet to look for a job or sign up for government services or access healthcare information. And it’s about making broadband affordable.

That’s why ToledoTel used a $2 million BTOP award to provide free laptops, Internet training and broadband service to about 800 people in its service territory, includes members of the Cowlitz Tribe. And it’s why Seattle has done more than just streamline permitting processes, update right-of-way policies and modernize the cable franchising process to make it easier for carriers to invest. The city also offers digital literacy training and has partnered with Google to make free portable Wi-Fi hot spots available for checkout from local libraries. At the other end of the state, the Spokane Public Library is exploring ways to boost Wi-Fi signals at its six branches to provide access to surrounding communities.

NTIA has supported digital inclusion initiatives from Seattle to Spokane. But there is more to be done, so the work to close the divide continues at the community level. And as it does, NTIA remains a valuable resource and an enthusiastic partner.