A statewide effort is underway to ensure all Washingtonians, whether they live in urban or rural areas, have access to broadband WiFi while maintaining appropriate social distancing practices.
At 441 locations around the state, residents will be able to stay in their cars while accessing high-speed Internet. During a teleconference and Facebook Live event earlier this week, key figures in the effort to bridge the “digital divide” remoted in from around the state.
“The purpose of these drive-up WiFi spots is that people can stay in their cars, stay safe and connect,” said Lisa Brown, Director of the Washington State Commerce Department, as she called in via video chat from the Washington State University extension parking lot in Newport in Pend Oreille County on the Idaho border. “And we all know how important that is right now, especially during this really challenging period of time.”
In Kitsap County, there are currently ten of these locations, all at local libraries — Port Orchard, Manchester, downtown Bremerton, Sylvan Way, Silverdale, Poulsbo, Kingston, Bainbridge Island and Little Boston.
But in more rural areas with fewer libraries, WiFi access can be found at other locations such as the Port of Allyn dock and Grapeview Fire Station in Mason County or the Walmart and JC Penney parking lots in Sequim.
When the project is complete, Washington is expected to have 600 public hotspots available, said Russ Elliott, the state’s broadband director.
About 300 of these WiFi access points already existed prior to the project, most within the library system, but the WiFi has now been turned out to the parking lots in order to keep residents isolated in their cars during the pandemic. An additional 140 hot spots have gone live with the rest to follow in the coming weeks.
Public utilities districts around the state have installed over 7,000 miles of fiber optic cable to date.
“About half of them will be brand new based on this initiative,” Elliott said.
The goal of the initiative is to create “Internet equity” in Washington, especially for those who live away from the urban, high-tech areas of the state, to allow residents to have the opportunity to do distance learning, remote work, have a doctor’s appointment through video or other essential day-to-day activities.
“Especially during this pandemic, it’s important that Washingtonians have the means to access the wide variety of digital resources offered by public libraries,” said Secretary of State Kim Wyman in a call from Skookum Hall in Shelton.
This public-private partnership has a number of participants, including Washington State University, Washington State Library, part of the Washington Office of the Secretary of State; members of the Washington Public Utility Districts Association and affiliated nonprofit Northwest Open Access Network; the Washington State Broadband Office, Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, Washington Technology Solutions; and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Microsoft and the Avista foundation provided funding and the federal government’s Information Technology Disaster Resource Center contributed equipment and installation.
Approximately $21 million in funding from the state has been approved for the larger, long term broadband expansion to rural communities and counties.
“To connect to the world during this challenging time, WiFi is essential,” Brown said.
To see a map of available locations, click here. The map will continue to be updated as more sites become active.