Thanks to federal stimulus funding, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Commerce are investing $7.2 billion to bring high-speed Internet access to unserved rural communities. WSU Extension is building partnerships in a broadband project in south central Washington that could be the model for other rural communities.
Through the WSU Extension Horizons Project, communities in rural south central Washington identified the lack of access to computers and high-speed broadband Internet connections as major obstacles to their efforts to reduce poverty and improve their economies. Through the Horizons process, WSU Extension Horizons coach Linda Williams led the formation of the Klickitat-Skamania Horizons Telecommunications Committee.
The committee represents nine communities in the two counties, and includes representatives from such partner organizations as economic development agencies, telecommunications firms, non-profits, libraries, health care services, and local and state governments.
“This approach really could be a model for other communities in the state, even across the country,” says Monica Babine, WSU Extension Senior Associate for Telework and Digital Inclusion. “It’s definitely an approach that can be replicated.”
Statewide, communities participating in the Horizons process identified creating more and better jobs as their greatest need, and the lack of access to broadband telecommunication as a major obstacle to creating and finding jobs, access to higher education, conducting business, and access to government services.
“Communication is so global these days, it’s how we do business, how we keep in touch,” says Babine. “Telecommunication access is critical for economic, social and cultural reasons, and for access to our government and its services.”
Babine says the key to creating partnerships and acquiring funding is to make the business case for the investment.
“The USDA, local telecommunications providers and other potential partners want to know that it’s a worthy investment,” she says. “We don’t want situations where we build it and people don’t come. We need to know the interest is there.”
She points to the example of Glenwood, an isolated community of about 500 residents on the southern border of the Yakama Indian Reservation, where a high school student made his senior project conducting a community survey and telecommunications assessment. The results identified a business case for broadband deployment.
Building on his success, the Telecommunications Committee adapted his survey for use throughout Klickitat County. The results identified unserved and underserved areas of the county, a need for community education about broadband uses and computer literacy, and concerns about affordability of both the service and computer hardware. The committee’s work led to inclusion in a multi-state proposal for a federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant. In March the grant was awarded, including funding for a $3.7 million fiber-optic infrastructure investment in Klickitat and Skamania counties.
Since then, WSU Extension and the committee have worked with a local Internet service provider to submit three additional ARRA grants. Babine says the ARRA funding is a good start on addressing the challenge nationally, but it’s just a start.
“The recovery act provided more than $7 billion for rural broadband grants nationally, but a recent Federal Communications Commission study estimates the total cost to bring broadband to all unserved areas is more than $23 billion,” she says.
To learn more about WSU’s Program for Digital Inclusion, visit http://dgss.wsu.edu/di/
For more information about the Horizons Project, visit www.horizons.wsu.edu.